Turning the Wheels

Kids grow up quick in Nepal. They have to support their parents, raise younger siblings, and help out in the fields before and after school. When in school there’s often a lack of teachers and many of the children sit in the class unsupervised. Poverty and hardship breed creativity and resourcefulness, whether it’s a kite made from rubbish for play or packets of noodles as shoes, or using an old bicycle wheel for playing.

In November 2011, I visited Kathmandu, a few villages around it and Okhaldhunga which is a remote and rural area in the Eastern part of Nepal, staying with and observing the daily life of local people. I was taking pictures for an upcoming exhibition that will showcase life in Nepal and raise funds for the non profit, Volunteer Initiative Nepal (VIN).

Nepal is a poor country which is reflected in it’s infrastructure. Water and electricity are hard to get. Traveling the short distance of 230 km between two cities can take locals one and a half days by bus. My interest was looking at how people live day to day life in difficult conditions. How they work, eat, play and laugh together. My intention is not to paper over the cracks of the hardships of their lives but to show how they maintain self-respect and a level of normality in constantly challenging circumstances.

During my visit, communication wasn’t easy. The younger generation helped a lot thanks to some education in English, but where that failed, smiles and gestures and the natural openness of the people was the language of the day. At the end of the trip I was left reflecting on the contrast between, the modernized world with the imminent stress of the credit crisis, the over-consumerism and the self-centeredness; and on the other hand the reality of living with hardly any material goods but with a sense of love and belonging.

This project was done with the cooperation of VIN and Friends of VIN and I thank them for their support.

 ~ By guest blogger and professional photographer, Elisabete Maisao Dos Santos. Elizabete lives in Holland & recently visited Nepal to photograph for a fundraiser and exhibition benefiting VIN which will be held in Spring 2012

Volunteering in Nepal

Volunteers Initiative Nepal or VIN is a Nepal based not-for-profit organization that was founded in 2005 by Bhupendra Ghimire (Bhupi). Bhupi grew up in a remote village in Nepal where he had to walk three hours a day to school. He was one of the few sBhupi, VIN staff & volunteerstudents from his village to complete graduation and later on went on to get his masters degree and become the youngest principal in a school in Kathmandu. After a successful career in education, Bhupi realized he wanted to improve the lives of the Nepali people, especially the poor, women and children. He joined forces with a diverse group of development workers, educationalists, social activists and other professionals to form VIN.

Teaching in secondary schoolVIN’s mission is to empower marginalized communities, with a focus on women and children, through enhanced educational programs and community training to promote equality, economic well-being and basic human rights. Currently, VIN serves the village of Jitpurphedi which is as a rural community 11km from the capital on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley. The community is home to a thousand households, with a total population of around 6,000 people. There are 9 schools, 9 early childhood development centers and very limited resources.

Early childhood education centerThe volunteer abroad opportunities at VIN are unique as they involve staying with a host family and getting a real experience of the Nepali culture. Each volunteer is placed with a family where they are given room, board and food. The families adopt the volunteer for the duration of the stay and are given a small stipend to cover the costs. The households are typically farmers with large families and are eager to interact with people from around the world who have come to enrich their lives. The life in village is not easy but offers pristine quiet scenery, friendly people and a strong bond with the community.

VIN offers a number of meaningful, affordable, fun and safe volunteering as well as internships opportunities in and around Kathmandu. Minimum commitment is one week, although most volunteers tend to stay for months and include hiking and sightseeing trips between their programs. A three day induction introduces the newcomers to Nepali language and culture. Volunteers also get to meet each other and the staff, forming long term friendships. Perhaps one of the most attractive features of VIN is that its programs are affordable and most of the money goes back into the community. A four week stay costs around EUR430.

Some of the volunteer projects include:

Help run microcredit cooperative
Train women in new income generation ideas
Organize literacy and life skills training
Work with 3-5yr olds as an ECD teacher’s assistant
Teach English in schools
Run teacher training to encourage use of creative teaching methods
Help out at an orphanage
Work as a qualified doctor or nurse at the Health Post
Organize health and hygiene awareness training for the community
Help with toilet construction and school renovation
Develop a waste management system
Work as a volunteer coordinator
Help with fundraising and grant writing
Work for environment and agroforestry
Teach English in a monastery or nunnery
Intern as a journalist at a Nepali magazine or other publication
Teach at a school for the deaf

To learn more visit www.volunteeringnepal.org

One guy’s quest to flush away the world’s sanitation problems

It all started a couple years ago when I went on Wikipedia to search for international holidays, as I was very interested in learn about more than just the well-known ones like Halloween and Valentine’s Day.  As I came across a holiday called World Toilet Day, I researched it and read about an agency called World Toilet Organization. 

I was inspired by WTO’s cause, as it builds toilets in other countries, including Cambodia and Indonesia.  The organization is located in Singapore and I made the decision that I wanted to establish a similar charity in America, as here in the United States, we aren’t used to the fact that a toilet is considered a luxury in many developing nations.  So I thought about what kind of title I’d want to use and I decided that Flush Campaign would be very catchy.  Then I chose to research the process of starting a nonprofit.

I found that starting a nonprofit takes a lot of money and paper work, and I wanted to find a solution that would allow me to bypass the bureaucracy of establishing one.  So I learned about fiscal sponsorships, which involves sharing nonprofit status with groups that already have tax exempt status.  My goal was to look for a compatible agency that would be willing to be a fiscal sponsor.  But one of the things I realized was that it would be very difficult to get local support for such an initiative, as it would be very expensive to not only build all the toilets in various countries, but also do all the traveling to find locations in which these toilets would be built.  For a cause like this, financial contributions would be one of the only ways to get involved, as it would be challenging to get volunteers and in-kind donations. 

After reading about charities such as the Global Soap Project, which collects soap for refugee camps worldwide, as well as remembering about my past involvement in homeless shelters and acknowledging the need for personal hygiene items in such settings, I chose to broaden the scope.  I came to the conclusion that I wanted the Flush Campaign to promote sanitation as whole and not just toilets.  In addition, I felt that it would be better to partner with already existing groups than to create a new one, inspired by Bill Gates focus on creating software for computers instead of developing the computers themselves).  In other words, instead of starting a new organization that collects hygiene supplies for people in need, I decided to start an initiative that helps established nonprofits gain these items.  Thus, the Flush Campaign was born. The Flush Campaign is a grassroots effort to advocate for organizations that locally and globally address the issue of sanitation and build healthier communities in the process. 

The reason why I want to focus on hygiene items is because many illnesses and even deaths around the world, as well as locally, are due to poor hygiene.  The goal would be to “flush way” the problems of poor sanitation in homeless shelters, refugee centers, and other types of nonprofits.  Currently I have collected soap from Homewood Suites to give to the Global Soap Project, benefiting refugees in Uganda, Kenya, and Swaziland.  Additionally, I have gathered shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and other similar products for the Task Force for the Homeless

My plan is to emphasize on in-kind donations for similar charities, as in-kind giving has gone up during the recession.  I don’t intend on collecting any products unless a specific charity request them and I base my work on the wish lists of these organizations.  While my main focus will be global charities, I will also be emphasizing on local organizations.      

~ By guest blogger Gaurav Bhatia, founder of the Flush Campaign

Heroine from India

The second Emory conference on Religion, conflict, and Peacebuilding 2011 took place this past weekend. Yesterday, Dr. Kiran Bedi gave a public talk on “Contemporary Issues and Practical Solutions” that included her movement against anti-corruption in India. Her fame started when she issued a parking ticket to the Prime Minister of India (Mrs Indira Gandhi) and now Dr. Bedi has been responsible for apprehending chief ministers, banking fraudulent and organizers of the Commonwealth Games. Even today, of the allocations, only $16 of every $100 is actually spent on building infrastructure in India. The rest fuels corruption and bribery. Clearly, the astronomical growth of the Indian economy needs to be counterbalanced with a strong infrastructure, and sound political and judiciary systems. You can join her movement abroad by visiting NRIAC.

I first met Dr. Bedi when I was a teenager growing up in Chandigarh, India. She had come to speak of her recent achievements at our local Rotary club. Even then, she left a deep impression on me. As a powerful woman in a male dominant career, she inspired young girls like me to demand respect and transform society. She did not stop there. Over the past few decades, she has been a humanitarian, peace keeper and activist. Dr. Bedi spoke about the need for our youth to be giving, to serve the communities and participate in the political affairs. Watch the video where Dr. Bedi gives her message.

                                    Video Kiran Bedi on youth

If you are not familiar, here is a brief background on Dr. Bedi (from the web)….

Dr. Kiran Bedi is an Indian social activist and retired Indian Police Service Officer (IPS) and became the first woman to join in 1972. She worked as Police Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations. Since retirement, she founded two non-profit organizations: Navjyoti and India Vision Foundation, which seek to improve the lives of Indians through education, addiction treatment, and programs for women and children living in India’s slums, rural areas, and prison. She has won numerous international awards for her courageous work in Indian prison and justice reform, including the equivalent of the Asian Nobel Prize. She has been the host of popular Indian court television, as well as the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary of her life, “Yes, Madam Sir”.

 

Inspiring young philanthropists

Believe it or not, Bernie Marcus and I have a lot in common. You would think more so in a few years once I make it big too! But so far, here is why I believe we have a similar path.

We both were instilled with a spirit of philanthropy from a young age. I started volunteering with my social worker grandmother in India as a kid, accompanying her to blind schools, orphanages, etc. My entire life, I have been involved with some non profit or the other, showing my continuous support to the community. Marcus’ personal connecting with giving and hard work started early in his life as well.

Like Marcus, I was also unable to afford college when I started. He worked as a waiter at a restaurant and supported himself through college. Determined to make it through college, my jobs included an Italian restaurant, Dunkin Donuts and a private tutor, while taking a full load of classes. We both were hard working straight A students. After being a successful employee and getting laid off, he decided to start his own company. Again, sounds a lot like my story!

I had the opportunity to hear the legendary Bernie Marcus speak at the Atlanta Press Club today. His business and philanthropic ventures have been an inspiration to me since I moved to Atlanta in 1997. He founded the Marcus Institute after noticing that one of his employee’s at The Home Depot was having difficulty dealing with her autistic child. Marcus and his wife spend hours and money at the Shepherd Center, helping war veterans who have suffered from traumatic brain damage. He also made a $250 million donations that helped open the Georgia Aquarium and changed the face of that section of downtown Atlanta.

Marcus’ parents were Russian immigrants and he grew up poor. His mother instilled in him that “you can be anything you want to be” living in the USA, a land of opportunities. They believed that the American dream was to be successful, provide for your family, live well and help others. He was told never to be envious of people who have more than him. Instead, to listen and learn from how they did it.

Even during hardships, he never took unemployment. Instead, he indiscriminately did whatever work was available. When Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus founded The Home Depot as a small business, they experienced a lot of difficulties. He said they bought empty boxes to show their customers that they had inventory and sometimes bribed them with $1 bills. Since he has experienced being an entrepreneur himself, he sympathizes with the small business owners across the US and is rallying against the politicians on laws and regulations that adversely affect them.

When Marcus was asked why he gives away his money, he answered that there is only so much he can eat or consume! Also, he gets a better feeling about his own life when he does something for someone else. That is perhaps what is most common amongst us philanthropists. We recognize the importance of giving back no matter if we are rich or poor. Clearly, there is only so much you need to take from the world in order to have a good life. Everything else that is bestowed upon you should be given back with gratefulness.

So what’s next for someone who has done it all? The Marcus center is moving towards education, they are opening schools for autistic children that would be able to provide care and education that public schools are not able to. The goal is to make these kids independent so they can provide for themselves.

I did get to exchange a few words with Marcus after the session. I told him about my background and the Go Eat Give movement. He said “Good for you!” and we got a picture taken together. I don’t know if he will go back and look up the website, but I am already honored to have stood next to this inspiring hero. We may have had a few things in common until this point in time, but I hope we have a lot more in the future.

Fun things to do during the summer holidays

It’s summer time already. The temperature is rising, the economy is still tight and the kids are out of school. It’s time to go to the pool, watch movies and have sleep-overs. But after a few days, you will get tired of all that. If you are scratching your heads on how to keep yourself and your kids entertained this summer without breaking your budget, I have a few ideas for you that involve food, travel and volunteerism.

Go

Plan a road trip to a nearby destination. Pack everyone into your car and head to a lake or beach. Rent a summer home for the week where you can cook your own food and play games. Even if you don’t have anything planned, here are some ideas for last minute trips.

Travel exchange programs are also a great way to stay for free in another city, or even country. Families can exchange homes, stay on farms, or be guests at no charge.

If you have decided to stay put this summer, you are in for a staycation. Which means you can be a tourist in your city and plan to do activities that you would otherwise do while travelling. Lodging and travel costs excluded of course.

Eat

Take a break from the regular summer camps and enrolls in a cooking camp. Learn to be a Food Network star or improve your awareness of food and nutrition. Kids and teens would also learn to work in teams and cooperate with one another.

Cooking with family at home can also be a lot of fun. Get the kids together for a fun day of making pasta, gelato, sushi or chocolate from scratch. It can be a rewarding learning experience that will bring the family together.

Give

There is no shortage of volunteering opportunities in every city. Enroll in a project or associate yourself with a cause. Make it a daily/ weekly schedule to visit an old home, children’s hospital or women’s shelter. Some of these can be quite entertaining as well, such as leading arts and crafts, sporting activities for other kids. Many charities are looking for interns during the summer who can help them with day-to-day administrative things, organizing events, etc.

By the end of summer, you would have used your time effectively to impact the lives of people and feel good about yourself.

If you have any ideas of your own to share, please leave a comment below.

Touched by a Mongolian smile

On a trip to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where I lived for three months, I spent my last day visiting Verbist Orphanage, in the countryside.  Mongolia is a one-city nation, with the vast surrounding land composed of the Gobi desert or barren land.  The extreme temperatures from their minus 40 degrees to 40 degrees Celsius, harbors a harsh environment for the few scraggly plants to try and persist despite the desert clime. It’s not an inviting place, yet I boarded the plane with my ticket in hand for a country few people have ever heard of or want to visit willingly.

volunteering in Mongolia

My travels have been my biggest learning experiences in my life.  They have taught me to be stronger, to adapt to unusual and uncomfortable circumstance, and to survive in some of the hardest situations I’ve dealt with physically and emotionally.  As an orphan given a second life with my parents’ gracious love from America, I was taken out of the scenario I was walking straight into.

volunteering in MongoliaThe children’s faces were confused at first, when my group arrived to the orphanage.  I had gone with a group of Mongolian students learning English.  One of the students had befriended me with her kind heart and shared interest in journalism.  She invited me on this excursion, and I jumped at the chance to visit an orphanage.

We boarded a bus that navigated the country terrain bravely to our destination.  Outside of the city, there are no paved roads in Mongolia.  There is nothing but open fields of nomadic families living off the land and their horses’ back. This is no terrain to take a public transportation bus through.

Upon arriving to the compound, we found the orphanage surrounded by a six foot wall decorated with colorful murals painted by previous visitors.  It was strange to see this compound in the middle of the dessert.  We had not encountered another living person or any sign of civilization for hours.  Our last gas stop to fuel up was more than two hours ago.  There were no buildings out this far from Ulan Bator.

It appeared like a mirage in the desert, but was firm to the touch when I reached for the gate handle.  Children, as young as five-years-old, were chopping wood with an axe by the entrance.  I winced in default as I stopped myself from taking the axe away from them.  This was their life; the way they had to live to survive.   They seemed unsure and scared of us – people from the city with our clean clothes and washed hands.  Many gesticulations later, the children were swarming us with warmth and laughter once the barrier was broken.  I had the toughest time since I couldn’t speak but a handful of words in Mongolian, most of which were nonsensical and useless in my current situation.

“San ban o.”  I said hello and smiled a lot to befriend the children, but they played with me with no inhibitions.  Two Belgium graduate students were spending a couple months living in a Ger in the orphanage compound.  They were teaching them English and writing their thesis on the orphanage; therefore, I gave the children a great outlet to use the handful of words they knew.  Most could say hello, but few were brave enough to venture more conversation.

We played basketball and random games they created on the spot.  We had brought toys and some books to give to them, which brought the biggest smile and a touch of civilization to their orphanage.  There was no electricity or running water.  Non-governmental organizations fund Verbist, just enough for the bare essentials.  I may never see their faces again or hear how their futures turn out, but I know they have touched my life.  Volunteering has a way of helping the volunteers out more than those they seek to help.  It is a gift to lend your hand and time to others, and it is always rewarded with gratitude and a memory you’ll always deeply cherish.

Read more of my trip to Verbist Orphanage.

~ By guest blogger Kate Greer

Bringing every woman back into the workforce

Yesterday, our Community Consulting Team presented it’s final deliverable to local non profit client, Every Woman Works. We had started the project earlier this year. Three volunteers, five months and a lot of hard work later, we were able to give Ms. Tillie, her board and her staff some concrete recommendations to take Every Woman Works to it’s next level.

Running a small organization in the suburbs of Roswell, GA with limited resources is not easy. The staff here has a strong passion for what they are doing i.e. helping other women (who have been in prison, drugs, or adversities) get back on their own feet. They provide an intensive curriculum that focuses on self empowerment, responsibility, dressing for success, interviewing and basic job skills. Most of the women are placed in a job even before they graduate. Needless to say, they are helping change people’s lives, so our consultation is very valuable to them.

The marketing project that our team focused on advised Every Woman Works to improve three broad areas – their web site, database and corporate sponsorships. We created a step-by-step plan that analyzed their current state, needs and an optimal future state as well as how to get there. In the next few months, you will see them re-haul their web site that is more donor-friendly and informative. It will have videos and testimonials. Their database is already under construction and it would be easier for them to stay in touch with their donors, volunteers and graduates. You can even start getting email newsletters from them soon.

Founder, Ms. Tillie and board chair, Michael Sinclair were very impressed with our work. They asked us to continue providing consultation to them throughout the year. We are very excited for the future of Every Woman Works and would be happy to provide ongoing support as needed.

If you are reading this and thinking “I want to help,” here are some ideas for you.

Every Woman Works is looking for a larger location so that they can offer their classes to more women. They have the demand but are constraint due to their physical limited capacity. If you know someone (such as a church, community center, real estate builder, etc.) who has empty space to offer, please contact Every Woman Works.

Make a monetary donation. It’s tax deductible. Also, if your employer has a partnership with United Way, you can chose Every Woman Works as your charity.

Have your company become a corporate sponsor. They are in dire need of large sponsorships from corporations. Donations ranging from cash, supplys to equipment can be very useful to them.

Get involved with their activities and events. If you are in the Atlanta area, make sure you attend their fundrasiers such as the Bee Ball, the Bee Extravaganza and other fun programs. For more information, contact them directly.

Helping victims of domestic violence

This past weekend, I was invited to speak to a group of women at Raksha about transitioning into the workforce. Raksha (meaning protection) is a nonprofit based in Atlanta that focuses on helping men and women who have been victims of domestic abuse. The South Asian community tends to be very silent about such issues; therefore assistance from family and friends is hard to come by.  Partners continue to be in abusive relationships fearing the societal taboos.

Typically, there are no distinct characteristic that describe a typical victim. They can be of any age, education, career or family. Domestic violence does not see a person’s background before attacking. Perhaps what can prevent it from continuing is a strong, determined, self sufficient individual. Even educated, working women can sometimes continue to be abused due to self esteem issues. If not addressed on time, it can lead to detrimental consequences.

I had mentioned this organization in my latest article in Khabar and attended some of their fundraising events, but didn’t get the opportunity to talk to their staff and victims in detail until now. The support group meets regularly at the Raksha office, which is a safe haven for them. They are given clothes, toys and food, whatever they need.  The staff organizes craft and play activities for the kids. Even lunch is provided during their meetings. The case workers at Raksha get involved with each of their clients personally by assisting them with everything ranging from self empowerment, educational programs, career advice, legal referrals and counseling.  They work with up to 30 clients at any given time.

As a result, the victims are able to overcome obstacles and empower themselves.  They go back to school, enter the job force, provide for their families and are able to take care of themselves. A lot of these individuals don’t have another place to turn to during their hardships, and Raksha is their only chance.

Due to confidentiality issues, I can’t disclose the women’s stories. But I can tell you this much – they all have a strong willingness to live and to strive. They want to put the past behind and dream of a better future. They wish to enjoy their families and friends, and be all they can be in this world. Even if they are broken once they first come in, they eventually find that living force within themselves with the help of the staff, volunteers and support group members.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of domestic violence, I urge you to help this organization in reaching out to more people. You can volunteer your time at events, support groups, mentoring, etc. or donate money, clothes or food. Please contact (404) 876-0670 for more information.

The Go Eat Give movement

Over the past few weeks, a lot of people have asked me “What is the idea behind Go Eat Give?” “Is it just a web site or more?” “What do you hope to achieve through it?” and “How can people get involved?”

I have answered some of those questions in my recent radio interview and media coverage, but here is a special edition just for my readers.

I started the Go Eat Give web site as an outlet to my stories. I have been writing about food and travel for different magazines, but this gives me a constant medium to express my passions. The “Go” stands for travels, “Eat” for food and “Give” for community service.

As I talked more about the site and what I was doing, it became the start of a movement. The Go Eat Give movement is about exploring the world through food and community service. I am encouraging people to travel (just as they would do for a vacation) but to a different part of the world, experience the local culture (not as a tourist) by working alongside the locals in the community. This can be done by doing volunteer work for as little as two hours a day. And lastly, explore the cultures the rest of the year while at home, through food. “Why food?” you may ask. Because food is one thing that brings us together. When people come together for a brief meeting or a special occasion, we always gather around food. We are social animals that want to be in a community and take pleasure in what we eat. Think about how exposure to international cuisines had broadened our horizons about different cultures.

Everyone talks about how the world is becoming a smaller place. We are more connected than ever because of the internet, media, transportation, etc. There is also much discussion about the human race entering a new era of enlightenment. It is expected that if we abandon our recent habits of competition and consumption, and tap into our inner spirits, the world will become a better place. In order to get there, either we hope lightning strikes on 12.21.2012 that raises collective consciousness or we make an effort to love and understand our brothers and sisters around the world.

This is where the Go Eat Give movement comes into play. It is here to enhance the evolution process, create mutual understand and raise awareness of who we are. I am not asking you to abandon your lifestyle, move abroad or make a huge commitment. All I am pronouncing is that stop being a tourist in your own world and start paying attention to your global community. Go Eat Give is about connecting people, places and palates!