In 2010, I went on a life-changing trip to Nepal with my father to hike the Annapurna trek in the Himalayas. Despite having traveled quite a bit, there was something truly magical and mind-blowing about Nepal. I had never experienced anything quite like it before. The chaotic mix of utter poverty and lack of infrastructure juxtaposed against the beauty of the Himalayas, the people and the culture truly touched my soul.
As we trekked through one beautiful remote village after another, I began to wonder how could it be that in this tiny, mountainous country where over 80% of its people live in remote villages like the ones we’d seen, that many people have little or no access to education. I learned that only half of Nepalese women over age 15 know how to read and write and many people are barely making ends meet to survive.
I’d always taken education for granted and it stunned me to realize that so many people in Nepal and around the world didn’t even have the choice to go to school. I also took safe drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity, health care, a warm stable home and access to medical care and employment for granted as well. I had been living in a bubble, and from that point on was determined to change my life and figure out a way to give back, and thankfully I did.
As a stay-at-home mother of two young children, my trip to Nepal reawakened a strong desire to become a writer and do good. I returned home and immediately started my travel and social good blog, Thirdeyemom, and also began building my work as a humanitarian by raising money and telling the stories of the progress being made by amazing non-profit and social good enterprises around the world.
As we were leaving Nepal, Rajan Simkahada, the owner of Earthbound Expeditions, our trekking company, gave me his card and mentioned some of the social work he was involved with in Nepal. On the back of the card was HANDS in Nepal, a small grassroots, non-profit organization based in California working to bring education to women and children in remote, rural areas of the Himalayas. As soon as I got home, I contacted them. I worked with the founder Danny’s mother, Jan Sprague, for almost a year helping raise money for HANDS in Nepal by selling beautiful, homemade Nepali goods that Jan purchased in Nepal and sent to me. It was a wonderful way to give back and in the end I knew that every sale helped improve the lives of both the women who made the blankets and scarves and the villagers supported by HANDS in Nepal.
Over the following eight years, I kept the promise I made to myself and have continued writing and doing good, raising awareness of such issues as women and girls empowerment, global health, poverty and education. I’ve featured many different non-profit organizations and social enterprises on the blog however I had lost touch with Nepal. A few weeks ago, I serendipitously reconnected with Jan Sprague, now the Director of HANDS in Nepal and it felt like fate. HANDS in Nepal is still working hard to promote education and reduce poverty in the remote Himalayan villages and has began many new projects. Since Nepal will forever be within my heart, I wanted to do an update on the incredible work being done by HANDS in Nepal. I know Nepal is calling me to come back for a visit and I hope too soon.
Interview with Jan Sprague, Director of HANDS in Nepal
How did Hands in Nepal get started?
At the age of 20, my son Danny went on his own to Kathmandu after reading about an orphanage called Buddhist Child Home that needed volunteers. He lived with the lady who ran the orphanage for the first month and then moved in with a Tibetan family to study Tibetan Buddhism. He walked to the orphanage each day from his Tibetan house. While working at the orphanage, he met Rajan Simkahada, and they became good friends. Rajan told Danny the “real” Nepal was up in the villages, and he would never see or learn about Nepal if he didn’t go up to the villages. So he went up to the village where Rajan grew up and was blown away by the poverty, the lack of roads, old, ruined school building, and the poor condition of homes. Rajan told Danny how kids up in villages have to walk great distances to attend a school and he asked Danny if he would build a school in his village, Dharka.
Most of Nepalese live in extremely remote, hard to reach areas. Rajan’s village Dharka is located in the Ganesh Himalayas, an area like many that most people have never heard of. Dharka is reached by first taking a bus from Kathmandu to Dhading Besi, then a bush taxi to where the road ends, then you hike about 5-6 hours up a mountain to the village. This is common for many villages in Nepal which demonstrates the immense challenge in development areas such as education, water and sanitation, health and more. Danny was blown away by his experience in Nepal, and it forever changed the trajectory of his life.
After returning to the US to start college at Naropa University, a private Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado, Danny did all he could to save up money and return to Nepal to help build the school. The two of us returned the following summer and began figuring out a plan for how we would build their first school in Rajan’s village, Dharka. It would have to be through the creation of a non-profit. We returned home to the US, filed papers for a 501(c)(3) for the start of a non-profit. Hands in Nepal was officially founded in 2007 and the school in Dharka was completed in 2008 and a second school called Shree Ganesh Primary School was opened in 2009.
Hands in Nepal was first founded with the building of two schools. Tell me more about the schools and the population served.
Both schools were new buildings built from the ground up. The schools have 4 classrooms for the village elementary school age children. They serve about 80 children from kinder age up to what we would call 5th grade. Because these are rural, farming villages, children walk up to a mile to come to a school we build, but many of the children live closer in the main village community. Teachers vary, depending on how many people in the area have the education to teach. We ask villagers to raise money for teacher salary from their school committee funds. Villages usually get some kind of government funding for teacher pay but this is not always reliable. Teachers get paid about $50 US dollars a month. We often help out as much as we can for teacher pay.
After building the schools, you moved into other areas of project work such as building a library and running a sewing cooperative. Can you tell me a little bit about all the different projects?
Visiting our schools and the villages, and seeing how they always requested books, I wondered if we could introduce the concept of a library to the villagers. I had not seen any libraries where we traveled and understood the high need of literacy. I talked to Danny about doing a single room building in the village of the second school and teaching villagers about the concept of libraries and how it works. The library could be used not only to stock books, but as a community center where children could come to read during the monsoon rains and adult education classes could be offered as well. That was our first library and it was a great success!
We kept bringing more things like wooden puzzles and big books like Atlases that I felt even the adults would like. What I didn’t factor on was that almost every adult in the village area was illiterate! They felt because they didn’t read, they could not go in to the library. It was hard to convince the women especially that they could come in and look at picture books. They told me over and over this library was children only. It broke my heart to see the women, heads covered in a heavy scarf so I only saw their eyes, wave a hand at me “No” when I would try to get them inside the library. But their eyes looked in with amazement at the books and cushions and I could tell they badly wanted to come in.
That experience made me really interested in women’s issues. I found out most girls quit school when they start to menstruate. Their education stops and they are expected to marry and have babies and take care of the home. Many of the women I met who begged, didn’t have husbands and had children to care for, but no job skills or education. I wondered what they could do to earn money. That is how I came up with the idea of purchasing sewing machines and teaching the women to sew. We bought some sewing machines in Kathmandu to distribute to the village women however we had to first get the sewing machines to the village (an experience in itself) and then teach them how to use these foot-machines (there is no electricity in the village), figure out where to buy fabric and most of all, how and where to sell the products the women make.
I started asking my Nepali friends and the lady who ran the orphanage that Danny worked at, Durga, has helped me a lot. She found very poor women in her village who needed to learn a trade and earn an income, and I supplied the machines. Then I met Kavita Adhikari, a young, educated woman from a village in Nepal who was doing international aid work with women in villages. She has been instrumental in helping HANDS in Nepal find the best places to take our machines and how to hire sewing teachers to help the village women. She is also trained in running sanitary pad workshops and workshops on filtering water using a basic sand-flow method. I now work closely with Kavita to stay in touch with village issues and needs.
How did you become the Director of HANDS in Nepal?
Danny spent so many years running HANDS in Nepal and dividing his time from studies at Naropa University, fundraising and working in Nepal that it was taking literally years and years to finish his B.A. in Peace Studies. Eventually he had to stop going to Nepal until he finished his degree. I took over since we had some wonderful projects going on, and the sewing programs were going great. We had this wonderful young Nepali woman working with us, Kavita, and it just seemed to me we had come too far to call it quits. I loved the people in Nepal and working there, and was ready to retire from teaching. Knowing I would have more time once I retired, I agreed to take over the Director’s reins and keep HANDS going. Our Board of Directors is a wonderful team and they all have been dedicated and loyal to doing our Nepal work. I think over the years we’ve only had one person leave the Board, and have added a few others who love helping children and believe in literacy as a road to peace. I feel so blessed to have these people in my life and on our Board.
Danny met his wife, Bree, at Naropa and together they traveled to Nepal and India many times to visit friends and see how our schools were doing. They settled back in our home town of Santa Margarita a few years ago, bought a house and had a little baby girl named Kora, which is the Tibetan word for a pilgrimage. She had been an added blessing to our lives but now Dan and Bree are very busy parents, so I am taking on more and more of the running of HANDS.
What kind of challenges have you faced?
I love what we are doing in villages for women and children. We began building one room “Learning Centers” after the great Earthquake, feeling that we could no longer raise enough funds for earthquake modified buildings for schools. Now all schools need to be engineered and supported with rebar and concrete blocks, instead of traditional mud and stone building such as the villagers do. To get this material up to villages where there are no roads is a herculean feat. We can provide the one room Learning Centers using reinforced building methods and stay within our budget. The Centers are used by villages as a library, sewing workshop and meeting place for villagers to hold jurgas, or committee meetings. Rather then one multi room school a year for one village, we can provide Centers and books and sewing machines and workshops for many. That seemed a better use of our money.
What are your future plans for HANDS in Nepal?
We are now looking at going in to the poorest of the poor communities, the Dalites, or Untochable caste, and offering our help there. A few years ago, we discovered a street school called Sarathi and we are supporting them with donations and books as the founder, a woman named Malla Kharel, struggles to keep the school open. She has about 75 students of all ages, mostly Dalite, that come from the streets, and if they weren’t able to attend, they’d have to beg. These children are denied an education in public schools because they are low caste.
Kavita was employed by another agency to do sanitary pad workshops in villages and she began to educate me on issues women have in not being able to obtain something as basic as sanitary napkins. Traditionally they have to go to the cow shed when they menstruate, and use plants or wool to make makeshift pads. With sewing machines, cloth, thread, scissors and snaps, we are able to host sanitary pad workshops in villages. Kavita teachers the workshops and each woman makes a foldable pad and takes home enough cloth, scissors, thread etc. to keep making them. This has been an extremely successful program for village women and we get requests to bring the pad workshop to villages all the time.
My vision is to see HANDS continue to support women and children in remote, impoverished areas of Nepal with one room centers that will house books and sewing machines, and to supply the teachers with what the women need to learn crafts, tailoring, school uniform stitching and sanitary pad sewing. My dream is to also teach women to read and write at our Learning Centers. Women who can read, can read to their children, and help them with school work. Since there is no adult education in Nepal, this concept will be a challenge, but I think quiet determination, along with my Nepal helpers Kavita, Durga, Malla, plus other Nepal friends who have been so supportive of HANDS in Nepal, I can break that barrier and help women help themselves and their families. It’s a small step forward, but one we can reasonable do one village at a time with enough funding.
What is next
This March Jan is leading a team of volunteers to go to Nepal to work with the Bay Sarathi Street school in Kathmandu where they will be distributing books to the school library they helped start. The team will also be purchasing sewing machines and books to bring to the villages they serve in the Annapurna area and will help with workshops at their two Learning Centers. The volunteers are all paying for their expenses for the trip and are helping support HANDS in Nepal programs by purchasing educational materials in Nepal to deliver to the villages.
How you can help
If you would like to help support HANDS in Nepal, you can donate money towards a sewing machine ($150 for one treadle machine) or for books ($20 per student), a school uniform ($20), teacher salaries ($50 per month) or towards the next building project (any amount). To make a tax-deductible donation, please visit www.handsinnepal.org