Nepal’s Children’s Center: Reflections of an American Volunteer

Eric Olsen
July 2, 2013

Hanna Morrison’s recollections of her 7 month volunteer service trip to Nepal. Hanna worked at the “Nepal Children’s Center,” a project run by the Unity Church of Fairfax and Service for Peace Nepal, a partnership facilitated by the Global Peace Foundation-USA .

Hanna Morrison with Nepalese child during her volunteer service.

When my friends heard I was going to Nepal, they’d often ask, “Where are you going to live?,” “What are you going to do?,” “You’re going by yourself?!?!,” “Isn’t that dangerous?,” or “Jeez, I could never do something like that, you’re brave!,”  “travel while you’re still young.” My answer was usually, “I don’t know yet . . . I’m going to figure it out when I get there.” This reality was maybe difficult for my parents to find comfort in, but for me, part of what made this trip so exciting was the uncertainty and mystery of how my year abroad would turn out. Luckily, getting on that plane with a one-way ticket was the best decision I have ever made.

Last winter, after completing my bachelor’s degree in Special and Elementary Education, I knew I wasn’t ready to get “sucked in” to working for a public school district for the next five years, so I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English abroad in Nepal. By the time I was informed that I wasn’t accepted, I had already grown attached to the idea of traveling to Nepal. Around the same time, I heard of a man named Saroj Khanal, through a family friend, Gail Hambleton, who is involved in a Conflict Victim Children Center in Sarlahi, Nepal. After one email exchange with Saroj Khanal, the Director of the Center and Director of Service For Peace-Nepal, my plan was to go there for at least six months to help out as a volunteer.

Unlike most volunteer programs, the Nepal Children’s Center hadn’t seen young volunteers from America before, so I had the freedom to create the experience I was looking for, which turned out to exceed all of my expectations. In the first month the physical difficulties made it challenging to be comfortable or happy in Sarlahi. 30 kilometers from the Indian border, Sarlahi is not the mountainous wonderland that you think of when you hear “Nepal.” On the contrary, it is bone dry for 10 months out of the year, relatively flat fields of sugar cane, and jumps between freezing to over 100 degrees in winter and summer respectively. Adjusting to the weather was one thing, but adapting to the food culture was quite another. I ate the same thing, rice, lentil soup, and vegetables, twice a day, every day for seven months. That got old fast. I did look forward to having chai milk tea on almost a daily basis with the neighborhood friends I would make. I lived in a simple room with no running water and intermittent electricity. I don’t share these things to get admiration or pity, but simply to give you an idea of how rural Sarlahi is. The remoteness, I believe, is what made my experience so valuable and meaningful. Nothing was familiar. Nothing was similar to how it is at home in the States. For seven months, there was always something new surprising me or catching my eye that I had never seen before. I was in awe of the color and vibrancy of the Nepali life.

After that first month or two, I found myself exploring on my own in our village, getting to know locals by practicing my Nepali, and forming true relationships with many of the children at the Center. The Nepal Children’s Center houses and cares for 27 students, ages 4-16 years old. There are two centers which are funded by Unity Church in Fairfax, Virginia and Service for Peace Korea. Some of the children are orphans, while others have lost one parent in recent conflicts.

For twelve years, there was a Maoist insurgency in Nepal and many lives were lost. These children’s fathers were both police men and Maoists. Living together and becoming friends with each other is one way to work toward reconciliation between groups. That is the goal of the Center, along with providing a quality education for the children. At the Center, all of the children eat meals, study, play, and sleep. They go to a local private school for classes as well. During my time there, I taught a Creative Arts class to expose them to visual art, storytelling, music, singing, and dancing. We had a great time! The kids actually wrote their own stories, illustrated books, and told their stories to an audience. They also participated in a play competition for the local community. I also helped to secure American sponsors for the Center for the next couple of years.

Before going to Nepal, I worried that the kids might be reserved and slow to open up to me, a foreigner, especially considering their backgrounds. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how warm and open the kids were to me. They truly took care of me. I never felt lonely there and knew that they appreciated what I was offering them. I was inspired by how they take care of each other too. On a daily basis, I’d see older kids helping the little ones get ready for school, washing their clothes, or bathing them. I’d see older children “adopting” little ones as their own brothers and sisters.

One special memory is of Tihar Festival. Hindus have so many festivals, it felt like there was a holiday from school at least once a week. However, Tihar is a special one. It honors and celebrates the brother-sister relationship.  In Nepal, brothers are expected to visit their sister no matter where they are or how old they are for a few days in November. The sister prepares food and the brother gives a gift. The sister also adorns the brother’s forehead with a “tika” including 7 colors (powdered paint). At the Center, those children who don’t have brothers or sisters had the chance to choose a brother or sister and perform this ceremony together. It was one of the most beautiful ceremonies I’ve witnessed. Family is everything in Nepal and they treat it like that.

Like many who travel to developing countries, I also saw how obviously happy people are with much less material things than we have in America. Living in a mud house without heat or air-conditioning, wearing the same clothes for days at a time, or eating the same simple meal everyday doesn’t bother them because they don’t know any different. In many ways, they are richer than we think we are. They stick together, they create community, they honor their religion, and they open their hearts to others easily.

The children I lived with were skilled at making something out of nothing, using their imagination. Sweet Purnima and Sangita, two eleven year old girls from Humla, Nepal, were staying up late so I went in their room one night to tell them to sleep fast! I had planned to have a scolding tone but Purnima showed me these beautiful slippers she made from a cardboard box. In her voice I could tell she was so excited to show me so my heart practically melted as fast as my face turned into a big smile. All I could do was tell her how much I loved them and that she could open a slipper shop, give her a big hug, and say good night. Moments like this made me feel so sad to leave Nepal. When they would try to impress me sometimes I felt like I was temporarily filling a deep hole that they carry inside all of the time. They miss their moms and dads so much. I can’t fathom growing up without mine. These girls remind me to enjoy the simple things. They don’t have toys, so they just make them out of whatever they can find lying around. Believing that you can create something beautiful, especially as a child, I think is so important. I hope to encourage Purnima and students like her to keep creating!

While living at the Center, sometimes I would feel sadness for the children who have lost parents. Doesn’t everyone deserve to have a parent who loves them? One day, I felt overwhelmed with pride for my students after a skit they performed. I got emotional and just let the wave flow over me that felt like it was coming from a source much bigger than me. I just felt the absence of their parents so strongly in this moment. I told them that they don’t realize how different their lives are from other kids around the world. I went into the girl’s room after to get cheered up . . . but it only brought more tears! They could see I had been crying and immediately sprang into “cheer sister up” mode. It was like they all thought the same thing at the same time because Sangita started singing a song in English really loud, Durga started telling me some detailed story, and Urmila draped a sari on me. It just made me cry so hard . . . feeling like these things they always want to show me should be seen by their own mom and dad, just to hear, “wow! That looks amazing! Let’s put it on the fridge!” But, what about Sangita? Who tells her “wow I am so impressed that you sang that whole song in English!”? I did that night, but then I had to leave back to America.

It’s strange . . . or maybe normal? I can remember feeling anxious about leaving home for “so long,” but before I left Nepal, I felt anxious about leaving Sarlahi. In most ways, I was glad to feel that way because it meant that I had truly created some good connections there. Sarlahi changed me. There have been few times in my life that I felt were really just mine . . . and my time in Sarlahi was definitely one of them. It was a precious experience that I can never forget. It was a time when I could challenge myself and face who I am without the cradle and comfort of my family and friends. Nepal became a place that showed me new people and who I want to be. It’s a place where I experienced loving children like a parent might. It is a place to adapt to a new lifestyle.

If you or anyone you know is looking for a new experience, please consider volunteering at the Nepal Children’s Center. You will work with a supportive, service-minded staff to provide for lovely children who need you! There are a few Nepali staff members, however, there is much more work than they have hands for. I can guarantee that it will change you in some way for the better and will be an amazing learning experience, through the tough days and the great ones. You’ll make friends and have your heart melted by beautiful children. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions at [email protected] .

I encourage any person, young or old, to go out on an adventure! Do something you don’t think you can do! Do something that makes you feel brave and independent. You will surprise yourself by the strength that you had all along.

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