“A PLACE DOESN’T TUG AT YOU the way a child does” the last words in the journal I kept during my month as a volunteer at Brighter Futures Children’s Home, in Bistechap, a village of 79 households southeast of Kathmandu, Nepal. The valley was beautiful; the village exquisite. The wheat was ready for harvest when I arrived, golden stalks swaying in the breeze across a vast valley and up terraced hills, nearly to the giant golden Shanti Ban Buddha who shed his universal light on us during the day and who glowed through the star-filled nights. I heard bells in the morning welcoming the spirits in every household, smelled incense burning, saw the mist lifting and the green day unfolding. In the distance women in bright red, yellow, and purple saris harvested the wheat, cutting it with a scythe, piling it on their backs, huge sheaves twice their size, walking the narrow paths home, where they spent the next several days beating the stalks on the ground, separating the wheat from the chaff. By the time I left the shorn wheat fields had been tilled with short-handled hoes by hand, and seeded with rice, the paddies now brilliant green rectangles up and down the valley. It was stunning.
So the place was beautiful, but it is the 14 children, ages 6 to 16 9 boys, 5 girls whom I think about every day, who taught me the power of human connection and the sweetness of simple things, a story, making music, picking wild berries along the path, skipping rope, talking, making a joke, laughing together. I knew about such pleasures of course, but living with these children who had lost their families and who had few material possessions, but who greeted each day with joy and curiosity reinforced my belief in basic human goodness and in the responsibility we all share for the health and wellbeing of each other.
They taught me concrete things too such as don’t waste food. We ate dal bhaat twice a day , a huge mound of rice bhaat on a wide metal plate, seasoned with a thin lentil dal soup, and garnished with a spoonful of curried vegetable potato, okra, cauliflower the vegetable being the only variation day to day prepared by Sita Didi (Didi means big sister; I was Kathleen Didi.). The boys sat in one row on the floor, the girls in a row perpendicular to them, I faced the boys and Sita Didi sat to my right surrounded by our 15 plates, doling out the dal bhaat. When the plates were ready, each person picked up his or her own, in order, handicapped children first, then the youngest to the oldest. The dal bhaat was delicious but sitting cross-legged on the floor hunched over my plate, eating hot rice and thin soup with the fingers of my right hand left an embarrassing halo of dal to mark my place on the floor. As the children finished eating, they took their cup and plate to the water spigot outside, washed each and set them on a rack to air dry. I watched them closely to know what to do, but the first time I washed up, I rinsed a bit of rice off my plate. “No, no!” seven-year-old Udai shouted. “You are wasting. Give it to the chickens.”
I was ashamed. At the next meal he demanded to see my plate before I cleaned it, then wouldn’t let me approach the spigot until I had pinched the last grain of rice from my plate and drunk the last drop of liquid. “You are the dal bhaat police,” I complained. He was delighted to be the dal bhaat police and from then on lay in wait for me after every meal.
Life there was simple. Days unfolded predictably with a rooster alert at 4:00 am, children stirring at 5:00, everybody up by 5:30 performing their morning ablutions at the cold water tap as the tinkle of bells rippled through the valley; by 6:30 the farmer’s boy had delivered the milk and Sita Didi was boiling it for the children. Then morning chores: everybody swept their area, polished their shoes, somebody got the newspaper from the tea shop and children crowded around to read it; others lined up to get their vitamins or ear drops or antiseptic on their nose piercing. We ate dal bhaat at 8:00, then there was a flurry of washing dishes, brushing teeth, getting dressed for school, primping in front of the mirror, filling their water bottles with boiled water, picking up the tin with their snack from Sita Didi, organizing their back packs, and by 9:00 we were all walking up the steep, muddy hill to wait for the school bus.
Tell us a story. Every morning the same request as we walked up the hill, the older children as insistent as the younger: tell us Sleeping Beauty, no, Robin Hood. We had Robin Hood yesterday, do Puss ‘n Boots, no, please Robin Hood. You promised. I told a lot of stories that month, over and over, their eyes round when the ogre or witch or the evil Sheriff of Nottingham appeared, eyes shining when the prince finally showed up and at the end, when I paused, everybody chorused “and they lived happily ever after.”
Which is my most fervent wish for those children, that they live happily ever after.
The founding of Volunteer Service in Nepal
Thanks to Emma Cahilog-Rahman, the Executive Director and Founder of Volunteer Service in Nepal (VSN), the children have an excellent chance of doing just that. When Emma took a holiday from her position as a university professor of philosophy in the Philippines to trek in Nepal, she fell in love, not only with the beauty of that rugged country but with the man who became her husband. Soon after her marriage, she determined “to do something for Nepal.”
New Zealander Colin Salisbury was just then organizing Global Volunteer Network (GVN) and was looking for a local partner in Nepal. He met Emma at a time that she realized that helping children was the most pressing need. The on-going Maoist insurrection had left countless orphans in the remote villages and many other families, fearing for their children’s wellbeing, had sent them to one of the numerous children’s homes that were springing up in the relative safety of the Kathmandu Valley. When ten volunteers from New Zealand arrived in 2003, it was these children that they and Emma set out to help.
The challenges were enormous. Many, not all, of the orphanages those first volunteers worked in were run by owners who took advantage of the generosity of donors and the fears of poor parents, most of whom paid relatively large sums to place their children. Emma drew up many contracts with the owners, to specify how they would use the resources VSN provided and time after time the contract was broken. When they raised money to provide a water filter for a home, the owner moved it into his quarters and the children had no clean water. A facility was renovated by VSN so children who had been sleeping outside could sleep inside and the owner moved his family into the space and the children continued to sleep outside. Early on it was clear that VSN needed to operate their own children’s homes in order to ensure adequate care. Now, just five years later VSN is operating two children’s homes, serving 51 children, and in addition are providing volunteers to other children’s homes when feasible or to teach in government schools. Emma’s mantra is sustainability. VSN must have control over the homes so they can ensure consistent care for the children and the homes must function well even if there are few volunteers. As GVN has expanded their program they now send volunteers to 26 countries (including the United States) fewer volunteers come to Nepal. “Everything we do must be sustainable,” Emma says.
As part of our volunteer orientation we toured both of VSN’s homes plus another run by a private owner. The contrast was startling and disturbing. In the two VSN homes the children were happy, clean and well-fed, kind to each other, full of curiosity about us; the homes were bright, attractive, simple but clean, and the children have a future, a bright future. VSN sends them to a private school where the language of instruction is English, and is committed to supporting them through college. These children will be well prepared to do something for Nepal.
At the owner-run home, there were no adults present the day we showed up and the 50 children housed there were unkempt. Several seemed listless; others were obviously glad to see us and followed us about as we looked into their dim rooms; four little boys, six or seven years old, were asleep on the floor in one room; another boy, about seven, was sitting alone, tugging at his ear. When we looked closer, it was clear that he had a severe ear infection swollen and painful to the touch. One of our group had some Tylenol which the VSN staff person cut into thirds, gave the child, wrapped the other two in a scrap of paper and told him to take one at bedtime and one the next morning. She asked one of the older boys to keep an eye on him and then we left, uneasy and heartsick.
The focus now in such homes is on the health of the children; a health volunteer stops in regularly to do a health check-up including taking children who are ill to a clinic, but VSN is no longer willing to provide anything beyond basic medical care because they can’t guarantee that their efforts will help the children. While I was there, the manager of another poorly run-home said he no longer wanted to work with VSN. When the volunteer told the children she had to leave, they said, “Now we won’t have enough to eat again.”
The children at Brighter Futures always had enough to eat. At my last meal there Sita Didi added a fried egg and French fried potatoes (chips) to my dal bhaat an unimaginable treat. (I first heard about it from the children “Didi has made chips for you!” “Just for me?” “Yes.”) It sounds silly, but when I saw the chips and egg on my plate, only my plate, it brought tears to my eyes. The children got quiet, watching me, wondering what was going to happen as I sat cross-legged and choked up before my plate of dal bhaat and chips. I took a deep breath, picked up a chip, nodded my thanks to Sita Didi and we all began to eat.
When I came home, my grandchildren saw my pictures and listened to my stories. “Did you tell them about us?” one asked. VSN keeps meticulous records on their children, including family history: “parents killed by Maoists,” “no known family,” “living parents, no contact,” “father dead, mother unable to cope,” “parents killed,” “no parents.” So yes, I had told them about my grandchildren, but not too much. The contrast was too great. Still my granddaughter’s question lingers because she and those children are deeply connected and dependent on each other.
It is the volunteer who is the luckiest
There is a truism in teaching that says it is the teacher who learns the most; the corollary is true for volunteers. It is the one who volunteers, who tries to give, who receives the most. Those children were glad to know me, they loved my stories, they learned to knit and finger crochet because I was there, but right now there is another volunteer who is loving them, helping them, teaching them karate or singing songs with them, maybe even somebody who can tell a good Robin Hood story. I was part of their lives for one month, a tiny footnote as their story moves forward. They will forget me, but I won’t forget them because they showed me the beauty of the human spirit, they reminded me that joy and curiosity are fundamental human qualities; that it is never about what you have but who you are; and that all children are our children.
Emma is now looking for volunteer opportunities for the children. “They have so much,” she said. “Ample food, health care, a good education. We can’t make it too easy for them. They must give back too.” How lucky they are to have a chance to volunteer because it is the volunteer who benefits the most. I know.
Kathleen Coskran is a writer and teacher. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including an NEA Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Since her retirement as head of Lake Country School, a large, nationally known Montessori school that serves children through age 15, she and her husband Chuck, (Ethiopia 65-67, Kenya staff, 68-70) walked the thousand-mile pilgrimage from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago, Spain and the following year taught at Zhejiang College of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, China. In May of 2008 she traveled to Nepal to work in a children’s home and develop curriculum for Volunteer Service in Nepal (VSN).