Love Nepal? So do I. Meet Olga who founded the Nepal Youth Foundation and has served over 50,000 Nepalese children.
The people of Nepal are personal to me. Years ago, I lost myself in the temple-filled alleys of Kathmandu, the quiet beauty of vistas from my tent in the high Himalayas, the thrill of walking with pilgrims at the Bodhnath Stupa. However, during a dozen adventures in Nepal, I discovered the best of the country: its people. They are both needy and incredibly generous.
My goal was to trek to the Mt. Everest Base Camp to celebrate my 30th birthday. Fate had other plans for me. I was in Nepal for the first time – alone. Across the valleys and summits of the Himalayas I lugged a backpack and slept in local homes in small villages. I didn’t reach the Everest Base Camp to celebrate my 30th birthday because of a debilitating case of amebic dysentery. A teenage Sherpa porter found me, curled up on a mat in a guest house, alone and very sick. He served me meals and searched through the valley for a doctor who could help me.When I was strong enough to walk again, he carried my heavy backpack, in addition to those of his wealthy clients along the trail. What did he want? What would he accept from me? He insisted over and over, “Nothing” and he meant it.
Pemba told me that he was sold by his father to pay for a debt. He worked in the fields and lived in a barn as an indentured slave for seven years. Pemba left me and hiked down the valley with his trekking clients and I continued up another valley to the Everest Base Camp. I was 29 years old and I made a pledge to myself, “I will never forget the generosity of the people of Nepal”. Thus, began my lifelong long love affair with the people of Nepal, my eventual friendship with Olga, the Founder of Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF) and my way of giving back to the children of Nepal.
Olga first visited Nepal in 1984 at age 65 to go on a trek in the mountains. She had just retired after 35 years as a lawyer for the California Supreme Court.
She discovered Nepal was awash with disabled children. Few received medical care of any kind, in part because they were stigmatized by society. Olga learned there was a widespread belief that a disability is punishment for sins committed by the child or parent in a prior life. The plight of disabled girls was particularly desperate because they were illiterate and would never marry, remaining a life-long burden to their families. Olga saw a problem and found an answer. She would offer scholarships to boarding schools in Kathmandu. That opened the floodgates.
Olga volunteered in a hospital for disabled children and quickly fell in love with them. On the spot, she decided to dedicate the rest of her life to helping Nepalese children. She returned to Nepal every year, eventually living 6-months in Kathmandu each year. She raised money from friends and friends of friends to house and care for orphans, offer scholarships and help disabled street children and founded the Nepal Youth Foundation.
I visited my friend Olga Murray for the first time in 1997. She took me to two small orphanages, where she housed about 30 homeless and disabled children. Housing costs and school scholarships came from small donations from her friends and friends of friends. On subsequent trips I witnessed how the the Nepal Youth Foundation programs expanded. I met more and more orphans in their new NYF homes, as well as the house parents, mothers with their newborn babies, the medical staff in the Nutritional Homes and the local NYF staff.
I watched NYF grow from a tiny organization helping 30 orphans to serving a total of over 50,000 children and youth. This growth speaks worlds about the dynamism of the organization as well as the level of need in Nepal and the ability of NYF to use their resources well.
A Piglet for a Girl’s Freedom
Olga and Som Paneru, the President, heard that fathers in a region of Southern Nepal were selling their daughters into bondage for $75 a year. Olga and Som came up with an idea to liberate thousands of girls living in servitude. Give a piglet to the mother to replace the income from the sale of her daughter. A piglet, given to a mother, could persuade a family to not sell their daughter. They would keep her at home, and she would attend school. NYF would provide education or vocational training, books and a uniform. The mother could raise a pig on kitchen scraps and sell the pig or piglets and earn in a year, what the family would have earned if they sold their daughter into bondage. Why a piglet and not cash, I asked Olga? She explained that the women wanted the piglet because the man of the house might gamble or drink away the cash quickly. The micro-business of the mom could keep her daughter at home and empower both of them.
The result was that 13,000 girls, some of whom had been enslaved since the age of six, were rescued and returned to their home communities
This program, “Free Kamlari Girls” is now self-sustaining. The girls (bought out of bondage by NYF) are now running their own NGO and are powerful advocates for their own community. It has come full circle. Som, with his master’s degree in hand, brought an action in the Supreme Court of Nepal seeking an order to force the government to comply with the United Nation’s laws on the Rights of the Child. The court’s decision outlawed the “Kamlari” practice of child servitude in Nepal.