Changing the World One Girl at a Time: A California Professor’s Calling in Nepal

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Dr. Jeffrey Kottler came to Nepal as a teacher of counseling skills but says that he “became the pupil, captured by the beauty of Nepal’s mountains and people, but also by the desire to do something to help needy children here.”

The professor of counseling at California State University in Fullerton and author of more than 75 books was transformed by what he saw in Nepal’s villages and schools and by meeting Dr. Kiran Regmi, a Nepali physician and professor dedicated to improving the health infrastructure in rural Nepal for women and children. Regmi was working with him at the time to complete her Ph.D. in public health policy.

Kottler says admiringly, “She’s the most accomplished woman I know, with a medical degree, masters degrees in public health and anthropology, and a doctorate.” Regmi’s description of the plight of poor families in rural Nepal matched what Kottler had seen while doing research in remote areas. In one village he had met the headmaster of a school who told him that an academically gifted girl was leaving school because her family couldn’t afford the fees. Other girls in the village had “disappeared,” perhaps ending up as indentured servants or as sex workers. Kottler asked what the fees cost, and when told how little it was he impulsively took out his wallet and paid for a year’s support.

“Do you realize what you’ve done?” asked Dr Regmi later. As kind as the gesture was, she explained, only a long term commitment was really going to help that girl. And by the way, one girl was just a drop in the bucket.

With the collaboration of Digumber Piya, a Nepali businessman, philanthropist and community activist, they founded the Madhav Ghimire Foundation, named after Dr Regmi’s father, the national poet of Nepal. From that first girl in 2003, the foundation now supports 73 students and plans to add 25 more in 2009.

The commitment is long term. Scholarship students are promised that as long as their work continues to be excellent, the foundation will pay for their education as far as they can carry it. At least one student, now in 11th grade, has the potential for medical school, says Kottler. Many of the other girls hope to become nurses, teachers, engineers, perhaps leaders of the country in the future.

That will be expensive. “We’ll need big money eventually to keep these promises,” he says solemnly. It only costs $100 per year to keep a girl in primary or secondary school, but 20 times that amount to pay for university and graduate studies. Most of the donations he receives are small contributions from students and teachers in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. The foundation is now looking for a million dollars, a many-fold increase from their current budget. It’s not easy: the amount is substantial but too small for major philanthropies. “I’m waiting for our Mortensen moment,” says Kottler, referring to Greg Mortensen, whose Central Asia Institute builds schools and promotes girls’ education in Pakistan. Mortensen’s story is told in the book Three Cups of Tea.

For now the foundation is financed by donations and run entirely by Kottler and other volunteers. Kottler brings annual trips to Nepal for those interested, mostly counsellors, educators, students, and health professionals. Participants are expected to raise funds and become “inspirational witnesses” back home for the foundation’s work.

The volunteers visit foundation schools, some accessible by road but others requiring a stiff walk into the rural countryside where nearly 80 percent of Nepal’s population lives. I joined the group last month on one visit.

Our goal was Sri Chandra school, about 20 miles from the nearest road in the village of Bahundanda, the birthplace of Madhav Ghimire. The river is only half a mile away from the village as the crow flies but 1,500 feet below town, and the hills equally far away to the northeast are 2,500 feet above. The village stretches out along a narrow ridge no more than 100 feet wide. A few alleys descend precipitously on each side, with houses clinging to the steep hillside or perched around the ridge where there’s a bit of level ground.

The main street is paved in slate flagstones with low rain gutters along the sides, and there’s a public water tap and resting place for travelers at the crossroads where the trail enters town and almost immediately departs again downhill. Our busy lodge and a next-door twin sit at one end of town; behind us the ridge falls away dizzyingly.

The fields that terrace the whole hill around are mostly fallow in the dry winter season, but crops of vegetables and brilliant yellow mustard patchwork the ground. Flocks of sheep and goats down from higher pasture for the winter scavenge the fields, while water buffalo chew their cud and chickens and ducks peck in the dirt paths.

The town of fewer than 100 households sends nearly 250 students to the school, which occupies a large flat area at the far end of the ridge from our lodge. Twelve classrooms take up the two long sides of an open courtyard, with a covered stage at one of the short ends and a two-story building with a cafeteria and administration offices at the other. It’s a good school by Nepali standards, with benches and desks in the rooms and chalkboards throughout.

Early in the morning after our arrival the school’s headmaster took the group off for home visits. The home visits are a key part of the foundation’s strategy, since a group of foreigners showing up at someone’s door inevitably brings out all the neighbors and passers-by. Doing the whole process in public – the student’s promise to study, the family’s promise to keep her in school, and the foundation’s promise of continued support – is the social glue that Kottler thinks will hold the program together.

It took a little less than two hours to visit five scholarship students’ households, and the group then returned to the school for an assembly. Benches from the classrooms had been pulled out into the central courtyard, with chairs along the front and sides and places of honor for the foreign guests.

Like any school assembly, the younger children were fidgety and the oldest ones put on attitudes of studied boredom. But unlike any assembly in my experience, children swarmed up to give us flowers, mostly poinsettia blossoms. Soon our laps were overflowing and the table next to us was covered.

Children danced, sang and recited, mostly rather well, and Kottler and several other team members spoke briefly. “We are pleased to be here,” Kottler told the children, “and so proud of everything you are doing.” Kottler later explained that the foundation’s plan is to grow the next generation of women doctors and professionals to help their villages and their country.

With that, Kottler and the other volunteers gave each teacher a kit of resource materials, and then asked the headmaster to call the scholarship students up one by one. The volunteers handed each child a backpack full of notebooks, writing materials, books and small gifts including a stone animal fetish donated by the Zuni Nation, a Native American tribe in the Southwest U.S. that has famed artisans.

Finally a tarp-covered mound at the back of the courtyard was revealed to be a huge pile of books, puzzles, games and sporting equipment for the school plus whiteboards for every classroom. The foundation’s strategy is to support its scholarship students not only by paying their fees but also by improving the schools where they study.

The school visits move some of the volunteers deeply. The cause has become “a purpose and direction for my life that continues to this very day,” writes one of the past volunteers on the foundation’s web site. Many have returned, and several volunteers have stayed on to work in the villages for months at a time, mentoring children and helping in the schools.

The foundation plans to expand into the Mount Everest area this year with the help of a Nepali partner to support academically gifted girls whose fathers have died in climbing accidents in the mountains.

The Madhav Ghimire Foundation is totally supported by contributions and volunteer efforts. It is registered in both Nepal and in the United States as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt charitable organization. Visit the foundation at http://www.ghimirefoundation.org/.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.