Tom Fakler on Volunteering with Classrooms in the Clouds

This is a Guest Post written by Tom Fakler (see bio below). 

Dawa Sherpa

Dawa Sherpa. All photos credited to Tom Fakler

Like thirdeyemom, I have a warm spot in my heart for Nepal: the people are inviting, and the country has some of the planet’s tallest mountains and extraordinarily beautiful scenery. The first time I visited Nepal, I was there to trek to the Everest Base Camp, but this year I went to learn more about the culture and its people.

Classroom in the CloudsI traveled to Nepal in April as a volunteer photographer with Restoration Works International (RWI). One of my tasks was to document work on the Chhairo Gompa in Lower Mustang; the other was to travel to the Jyalsa Monastary in the Everest region, and provide photographic documentation for prospective restoration work there. Dawa Sherpa, a local guide and entrepreneur, was to be my guide.

As often happens in Nepal, we were unable to fly to Jyalsa as planned, and as an alternative, Dawa arranged for me to join him and David Woods, a Classrooms in the Clouds board member on an NGO survey trek from Lukla to Jyalsa. We would follow the historical Everest trail to visit several villages with school rooms built by Classrooms in the Clouds. I offered to photograph the village visits. In all, we trekked for eleven days, our long walks filled with discussion of projects currently underway.

In the shadow of Everest

Tom Fakler photography

Our trek started in Lukla and took us along part of the old trekking route from Lukla to Kathmandu. This trail is no longer used by most tourists headed to the Everest Base Camp, as they now fly to Lukla and trek from there. It was a pleasure to be on the route taken by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for their Everest climb 60 years ago.

The trail goes through a remote and rugged part of Nepal. The elevation is lower here than the trail from Lukla to the Everest Base Camp I had followed on my previous visit to Nepal—warmer, almost jungle like. Although the area is quite remote, the trail still serves as a major route for carrying goods to and between villages.

As we walked along, we encountered groups of porters frequently. Most were carrying construction materials, such as corrugated tin roofing and reinforcing rods, walking several days to reach building sites. We also met children on their way to school, mostly elementary students walking significant distances to reach their classrooms. Dawa always stopped to speak with the children.

Tom Fakler photography

Our trek went through a remote part of Nepal, up and down all the way , very much as I remembered hiking in Nepal. I was very glad that the river crossings have been upgraded with bridges such as this one, since I was last there.

The problem—and one man’s solution

In 2005 a group from the UK trekked to the Everest Base Camp with Dawa Sherpa and fell in love with Nepal. Along the way, Dawa told them of his dream to improve the school facilities in his local village. With that idea Classrooms in the Clouds was born!

By 2009 the new NGO had collected donations sufficient to begin building schools under the leadership of Dawa Sherpa, now a member of the Classrooms in the Clouds Board of Trustees. By the time of our visit in May, the group had built 18 classrooms in 3 villages.  Still, there is no shortage of need. One village has recently asked to have rooms built so students will not have to cross a stream that floods during the monsoon. A child was swept to his death a few years ago crossing that stream on the way to school.

Tom Fakler Photography

The only way to reach the villages we visited is on foot. This is an eight-room school built by Classrooms in the Clouds in Bakhapalam, a three-day walk from either Lukla or a road. All construction material, including corrugated tin for the roof, was carried in by porters.

Tom Fakler Photography

These rooms in the Pelmang Lower Secondary School are constructed of bamboo, and clearly need to be replaced.

Tom Fakler Photography

Children studying in a classroom in Bakhapalam.

Tom Fakler Photography

As we trekked, people would stop Dawa and chat. Some, such as this older man, upon learning that Dawa is with Classrooms in the Clouds, thanked him profusely for building new school rooms in his village. ” I am very happy that my grandchildren can go to school!”

Community involvement

Classrooms in the Clouds works with communities to improve their schools. This can take several forms. If a village wants support, a community development council and Classrooms in the Clouds decide jointly what support can be granted. Communities are also involved at the individual family level, and this added engagement has proven effective in maintaining buildings after they are. A village receiving support must supply labor and raw materials equal to about one quarter of the value of the project. Finally, supplemental teachers are usually from the villages in which the schools are located; support for them channels resources directly back into the village.

Tom Fakler Photography

In one village, each family is responsible for moving one-half-cubic meter of stone from the quarry to the school building site. Here, a volunteer carries 30 plus kilos of stone.

An expanded vision for support

With the Nepali government unable to supply sufficient teachers for a good teacher-student ratio, the lack of teachers in the villages of the countryside is as acute as the need for school buildings. It falls to villages to hire young people who have just completed the 10th or 12th grade, employing them as supplemental teachers. Although the villages cannot pay a supplemental teacher as much as government teachers earn, this does provide employment for young people and helps improve overall education delivery in the country. Classrooms in the Clouds is trying to top up the wages of supplemental teachers to the level of a government salary. This also helps enable young teachers to remain in their home village.

Tom Fakler Photography

One of the supplemental teachers in Bakhapalam. Classrooms in the Clouds currently supports four supplemental teachers, and is working to increase this number.

Classrooms in the Clouds now has a volunteer program that includes teacher training in English. Volunteers are also involved in construction projects, and work in the communities, developing awareness around health, safety and the environment.

An NGO meriting volunteer support and donations

I was impressed with the quality of school room construction I saw, and by the positive attitude of the communities we visited toward the Classrooms in the Clouds organization. I very much agree with the approach being taken in support of local villages, both in building school rooms and in providing support for teachers. Clearly, though, more school rooms are needed in the villages in this remote region. And it is just as clear that many more communities can benefit from Classrooms in the Clouds support to improve both infrastructure and teaching quality.

Are you interested in learning more about Classrooms in the Clouds and its volunteer program? I encourage you to check out their website.

About Tom:

My passion for photography is right up there with my love of travel and adventure. This has drawn me to Nepal twice and I am planning to return to teach a photographic workshop this fall.

Many of my photographs find their way onto the Anita’s Feast travel blog, where I support my wife Anita and add a few of my own posts.

I feel fortunate in my own education and life opportunities, and welcome an opportunity to give back, benefitting others less fortunate. I have done this by volunteering on several community development projects in Cambodia and Nepal.

My primary photographic interests are capturing the emotions of people and the sometimes raw beauty, as well as the elegance, of a visibly changing world. A freelance photographer and photojournalist, I accept assignments worldwide.

Related posts on Anita’s Feast about Tom’s Trip to Nepal:

In Mountain Light: a Travel Photography Workshop with Tom Fakler

Buddhist wall paintings for Chhairo Gompa, Nepal

In Nepal’s Lower Mustang, volunteers restore Chhairo Gompa

Return to Kathmandu



  1. Pingback: Volunteering in Nepal, at Third Eye Mom | Anita's Feast

  2. I had the opportunity to meet Tom on a recent trip to Nepal. This article affirms my opinion that he is a consummate photographer with a gift for narrating his photographic essays. Thanks.

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