The Shangri-La School
Local Families Sponsor Education for Nepal's Poorest Children
BY CAREE CONNET
Thailai was in poor health when she arrived at the school in 1994. Today, she's a radiant, vibrant child.
Sometimes a village is too poor to feed a child; sometimes an entire country is too poor to feed all of its children. Nepal, the only official Hindu state in the world, is one of the least developed countries, with a third of the population subsisting below the poverty line. This landlocked Himalayan kingdom, squeezed between India and China, suffers from a lack of natural resources and roads, deforestation, erosion, and vehicular emissions. Nepal’s terrain, which ranges from the world’s highest peaks to steep hills to subtropical jungles, limits the amount of arable land, and tourism has declined in recent years due to political unrest.
In spite of these difficulties, the Nepalese are extremely friendly, cheerful people. Faced with a challenging situation, they will say, “No problem.” If it really is a problem, they’ll say, with a philosophical shrug, “What to do?”
“I kept asking myself the same question,” Pam Whitworth tells me, as we drink chai in her spacious kitchen overlooking the cornfields of southeastern Iowa. “During my first trip to Nepal in 1995, I fell in love with the country, its stunning landscape, and its warmhearted people. But I also saw what poverty is and how cruel it can be, especially for children. . . . We have so much in our culture, and it takes so little to make a difference in their lives. There’s so much inequality in our world, so to be able to correct that imbalance in any small way feels like the right thing to do.”
I nod in agreement. In 1998, my husband and I joined Pam for a trek in the Annapurna region. I could never forget the sight of children begging in the streets or doing backbreaking work.
From Shy Child to Gentle Man
Not long after her first visit, Pam began sponsoring a Nepalese child. Her friend Martha, who was living in Kathmandu, had a cook with two children, very poor. This young mother would never be able to afford to send her children to school. Martha, along with her mother, decided to sponsor them at a school close to where she lived. She discovered that the principal was supporting quite a few children from very poor, remote villages who were orphans, or had only one parent. This man was trying to make some small contribution to their lives. He had a long waiting list of needy kids, and he asked Martha if she knew anyone who might be willing to sponsor a child.
“So Martha asked me, and I immediately said yes,” Pam recalls. “Punya, the boy I’ve sponsored for ten years, has no father. His mother works in a carpet factory making $20 a month. There are four kids in the family, and now we sponsor all of them. Punya was just a tiny, extremely shy little boy when I first met him. Now he’s taller than I am, and a sweet, gentle young man. He’s like a big brother to all the kids. When I was recently in Nepal, he told me with tears in his eyes that he didn’t know what would have become of him if I hadn’t sponsored him. He said his mother was so grateful, and wanted him to thank me for helping her children.”
One Child Led to Another
There was always a waiting list of children in need, and an endless litany of heartbreaking stories. This one’s mother died and the father ran off, leaving the child with an elderly grandparent who could not afford to feed the child. The father was dying and the mother was working in India on a road crew, and the villagers could not cope. There were no parents and someone found the child on the street. Or there were parents but they were too poor to pay any school fees.
The Personal Connection
Pam realized she could not sponsor all of them. So she asked friends who she thought might be willing and able to sponsor a child, and many, in turn, said yes. Some, like myself, have a strong connection to Nepal, and others are attracted to the personal aspect, knowing the child they are sponsoring. And others like the idea of a small charity where they know that 100 percent of their money goes directly to the recipients. The children all know their sponsors, and they love knowing someone is concerned about their welfare, their education, their life. Many sponsors write and send pictures or small necessities, and the children write letters or send drawings.
Pam has been the coordinator over the years. She stays in touch with the school, acting as a channel for communications and for the funds to flow. “It’s not so easy to get money from here to there,” she says. “Over the past year Martha has gotten much more involved, offering to act as a conduit for the funds. This has been so helpful. I can be sure the money gets to the kids. Also, she lives close to the school and can check on the kids regularly, and they stop by to visit her. This way, she keeps me informed about how they are and what they may need.” Pam in turn relays information to the sponsors, and discusses any special needs their child may have, as well as organizing exchanges of letters and pictures.
The Children’s Stories
Pam has been keeping a photo album of the children for all these years. The pictures record the life of each child, and every year there are more new faces. She shows me the most recent picture of the girl I sponsor, Thailai Lama, smiling radiantly at the camera. Pam flips back to the beginning of the album, and points out Thailai in a group photo. I hardly recognize her as the same girl.
“When I think of the kids’ stories,” Pam says, “the one image that comes to mind is Thailai. When I first saw her in 2000, she was this little kid from a far-off village in the mountains, like the kind we saw during our trek. She was in very poor health. She had scabies, her skin was all messed up, and her hair was cut short because she probably had head lice. She kept her head down and wouldn’t look at us. She looked so scared. And now, after seven years, look at her. She’s bright and happy and healthy.”
Pam feels that the love and attention the kids receive from their sponsor nourishes them. They in turn feel a very special love for the person on the other side of the world who is making their lives better. Many of the kids call their sponsor Mother or Father.
Pam shows me photos of two more children. “Like Thailai, Wangdu and Jhangjuk are from a very remote area in Humla, in western Nepal, so they almost never see their families,” Pam continues. “Wangdu sees his maybe every two or three years. They can’t afford to travel that far. Wangdu is really smart, good in everything, sports, and academics. He’s going to be a real leader when he gets older. Jhangjuk has an older brother in Kathmandu who looks after her, but he’s gone for long periods of time. . . . But the other two kids, we have to do everything for them—make sure that they have clothing, medical attention, hair cuts, and shoes. We really have to be parents for the ones who have no family to take care of them.
“Last fall, I really felt compelled to go and visit the kids because they had just moved into a new school, Shangri-La. We moved them last year from their old school, where they had been for many years, but conditions had deteriorated and the kids weren’t happy. Now they are settled and very happy. It’s private, which means non-religious, as are all schools that are any good in Nepal. Public schools there are less than sub-standard, horrible, virtually useless.”
Pam shows me a picture of a smiling man with a mustache. “This is Mr. Karki, the principal, at Shangri-La. Our kids are the only boarders at this school, because this principal will only take boarders who are very, very poor. Many rich parents want their children to board at school, because everything is taken care of, but Mr. Karki will not take those children, even though he could make money that way. Our kids, who stay in the hostel, are like a family. He doesn’t want them to feel disadvantaged by wealthy families bringing food and money to their children, things our kids don’t have. He feels very solicitous of our kids. He’s such a sweet man. You can just see it in his face.
“When I was there, Martha and I had a big picnic for the kids. We’d planned it for months. They kids played games, ran up and down, and had lunch. We had a grab bag of school supplies that I brought with me. All of the sponsors sent photos and letters. The kids were so excited. They sat in the grass and poured over those letters. I also put together a photo album of all the sponsors. They loved that! They love photos. It means so much to them that someone is taking time to connect with them, plus they are terribly curious about America.
“For a lot of these kids, their lives have been really tough. They’ve had to grow up early and haven’t had time to be kids. At this new school, they have a big playground where they can play basketball and soccer and games, and Mr. Karki has planted trees and flowers around the school. He also arranges for the children to go on field trips on occasion.”
Kids on the Waiting List
I ask Pam why she took on the huge task of managing essentially a private charity.
“It was so natural, because of my love of Nepal,” she replies. “The bottom line for me is the heart value. That’s why I’ve done it, and why I continue to do it, and why other people become sponsors. When I do anything for a child, even chatting with a sponsor or writing an email to the principal with a question about one of the kids, it just makes me happy. It’s that thing of doing for someone else, and with children, there’s so much they can’t do for themselves.
“When we had that picnic, it was so much fun. They ran and played games and had party food. They don’t have those kinds of things in their lives. I want them to have that feeling in their heart: Someone cares about me.
“On this last trip I bought disposable cameras for each child, so they could record their daily life for their sponsors. Most had never used a camera, so it was a quite exciting for them. It’s the kind of thing parents here would do, but their parents can’t. In our society we think about doing creative things with kids, but they don’t have that kind of exploratory education. So it was fun to do. It makes me think about what other projects we might do.
“This sponsorship program has been a very simple grassroots thing that has grown organically. Every penny that comes in goes directly to the children, so you really know what your money is doing and who it’s doing it for. You see how the kids’ lives are changed. You know their stories. It’s putting a real face on charity. Right now there are about 20 sponsors that I organize and 14 children that we support. Some kids, like Vikram, have multiple sponsors. Martha has her own group of additional kids and sponsors. Altogether we have almost 25 kids. But the little ones on the waiting list . . . those we think about all the time.”
The total cost to sponsor one child for an entire year is $675, which covers school fees, room and board, books, and uniforms. Some people co-sponsor, sharing the cost with one or more friends. If the child has no family, the sponsor should also be prepared to provide for extra expenses, such as simple clothing and basic medical care.
“More than ever on this last trip I saw how little it takes to give them a new life, with some security,” Pam says, “and how much it means to them just having somebody care about their welfare, their happiness, and their future. It’s basically what every human being deserves, isn’t it?”
To Sponsor a Child
If, in the spirit of this season of love and friendship, you would like to make a heart-to-heart connection with a Nepalese child, please contact Pam Whitworth at (641) 472-8955 or
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