A life-changing experience in Nepal

Dolores McWeeney, a 32 year old from The Mall, Ballyshannon heard about the work that Irish charity The Umbrella Foundation does in Nepal from her sister, who brings student volunteers over there every summer. Dolores decided that she wanted to get involved and here, she describes what a life-changing experience she had.

Dolores McWeeney, a 32 year old from The Mall, Ballyshannon heard about the work that Irish charity The Umbrella Foundation does in Nepal from her sister, who brings student volunteers over there every summer. Dolores decided that she wanted to get involved and here, she describes what a life-changing experience she had.

I have returned from Kathmandu in Nepal, where I volunteered for four months with The Umbrella Foundation. I would like to tell the people what an amazing experience it was and to highlight the ongoing great work that is being done to help some of the forgotten children of Nepal.

The Umbrella foundation was founded by Viva Bell and Dave Cutler in 2005, in response to the growing number of corrupt children’s homes in Kathmandu. Many of these homes neglected the children’s most basic rights; food, education, safe shelter, health care and love. The Umbrella Foundation started out with a small number of children. The founders firstly closed down an orphanage which housed 48 malnourished and uneducated children. This was done with the help of the Nepali Social Welfare Board. They then placed the 48 children in a newly founded home, where they continue to live today. However this number grew rapidly.

The founders focused on housing eight children they had rescued. The horror was only unfolding. They found that most of the orphanages in Kathmandu were not up to living standards of any kind. Many orphanages were without a water supply, the children were not being fed and most of them had no education structure in place. Yet the most devastating fact was that most of the children in the orphanages had no documentation. This meant that these children had no birth certificates, no family history and some did not even know their own birthday. The only information on these children was that the most of them where from Nepal. This horror could not be ignored any longer. Viva Bell, Dave Cutler and their supporters could not comprehend how the existence of so many children were not documented.

It was time for someone to step in to investigate further. The majority of the orphanages were immediately closed down. The children were placed in suitable houses which met the standards of the Nepali Social Welfare Board and an investigation into each child family history began.

In the beginning this story looked more like a horror story, however with the determination and hard work of sponsors and founders it eventually turns into a dream for most of the children involved.

The Umbrella foundation set up six homes and housed as many children as possible. Furthermore,while the children are being cared for the foundation is working with local government to find any documentation on the children in their care. Their end goal was to reunite the children with their families.

These now healthy, happy and well-adjusted children are given a new lease of life. The children began to trust adults and for the first time began to dream of a better future for themselves and their country.

The house sizes range from 16 children to 35. There are two girl’s houses, two young boys’ houses and one older boy’s houses. Though there are five separate houses they are all within five minutes walk of each other and together they create an Umbrella village and community. Each house is managed by the house parents, a married couple with children of their own. This couple offer a foster parent type relationship to the children of the house. I volunteered for four months in one of the girls houses known as Sagamartha which in the Nepalese name for the greatest mountain on earth, Everest. This is where my life changing experience began.

Umbrella try to create a family atmosphere in the houses and all the children consider the other Umbrella kids their brothers and sisters. As the children get older in Umbrella they are encouraged to take on more responsibility and many take the role of ‘big brother’ or ‘big sister’.

There is a simple routine in every house. The children have an early start, waking up at 6am. There is study time in the morning which is followed by their first Dhal Bat meal, a meal of rice (Bat), lentil sauce (Dhal) and curried vegetables. They go to school from 10am to 4pm. Their school is a 15 minute walk from each house. This was a special time for me, one of the roles of the volunteer to help them with their study and walk to school with them. They are very bright children and most importantly enjoyed doing their homework. They study for two hours every morning before going to school. They would put some western students to shame to say the least! During this short walk, I got to know all the girls. It was my favourite time with them. They sang, picked flowers and told some great stories. I found this the best time to be with them because they were very excited and happy to go to school. It was an amazing start to my day. After the second day, I found myself looking forward to collecting them to hear about their busy day in school. Arriving at the school was equally special. The school was a two storey cement building with a flat roof, with no window panes or doors, with some desks and chairs in which some 40 students would sit together. In front of the school, there was a large dirt area where all the children lined up before they started their day. Once the bell was rung by the principal, like clockwork each of the children would run to their individual spot.

A second bell would sound and the children would start their morning stretching! Each of them in unison stretching and grinning from head to toe. The silence was quite often broken by the odd giggle and sometimes I would even get a tiny wave or cheeky face from one of the comedians from my house. They then finished with their school’s song. At this moment every morning I knew I was privileged not because of where I came from but where I was.

The volunteers collect the children in the evening. Every day was like the first. Along the uneven rough path, it was the most enjoyable walk I have ever done, listening to the girls telling what happened since I last seen them. They would tell me about their dramas, their funny stories and their wild tales about each other. When they arrive home. a snack is prepared for them. They have time to play and then start their studies. At 5.30pm they have their second Dhal Bat meal followed by more studies. This is also a time where the volunteer spent time with the children. I would sometimes organise an activity, watch TV depending if there was electrically. However usually I just hang out with them.

It was so enjoyable being with them. They loved company and made me few like one of their big sister. This feeling was so great. The girls were very much their own individuals. They had huge personalities all of which were very caring, funny, intelligent, wise and ambitious. Each girl had her own gift and they knew each other so well. They trusted each other. I also found that they were very proud of one another. There were not jealous, disrespectful or challenged by one another. They enjoyed each other’s company sometimes it was hard to keep up!

During my short stay I don’t think I laughed so much in my life. The only time the laughter would turn to a more serious note was at homework time. I spent most evenings helping them with Maths, English, Science and as many subjects as I could. However most of them didn’t need my help. Each girl was at the top of their class. Thinking back on how much study I did at their age I often felt guilty. Especially when these girls didn’t have heat and usually had no electricity, yet homework was their priority and it would get done no matter what!

Education is a high priority in Umbrella and so each house has a live-in college student who acts as tutor in the house. They help the children with their home work, studies and act as role models for the children. The tutors themselves often come from underprivileged backgrounds and so Umbrella helps them with their college fees and encourages their education and offers them an allowance in exchange for their work with the children.
For many years the children of Umbrella were sent to private, English medium schools. As the children grew older and the time came for them to leave school and progress onto the next steps of their education it became apparent that their expectations matched that of the standard of education they had received thus far and did not correlate with the standard of further education Umbrella was in a position to offer. It was decided to move all the children to Government schools in April of 2011. 

Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. In Nepal child traffickers prey on uneducated and vulnerable families in the rural districts of Nepal. They offer the families the promise of an education in Kathmandu and take the children away from their homes. By sending the children to government schools, like those available in the children’s home districts, Umbrella are helping to dispel the illusion that education can only be found in the capital. By offering the child the same education as the parent can provide Umbrella can encourage more families to take back their children and bring them up within their own family unit. 

Umbrella has rescued over 360 children from many different districts of Nepal and the majority of these children were victims of child trafficking.

Umbrella’s priority is not only to meet a child’s needs post rescue but to address their psycho-social development needs and to play our part in addressing the root causes of trafficking in Nepal. Therefore they work to reintegrate the children they rescue where it is in the best interests of the child. Some regions of Nepal are more vulnerable to trafficking due to their proximity to Kathmandu or the region’s lack of education and or low economic status. The district of Rasuwa is one such region and it is the region of origin for Fifty-nine of our youngest children.

When I arrived Umbrella had began The Next Project. There was also more good news. All the volunteers were excited to hear that we would be involved in this project. We were invited to the famous village of Rasuwa where most of the children were from. The journey took 16 hours on a bus; along the most dangerous roads in the world. This was an unbelievable opportunity to see the real Nepal. Rice fields stretching far as the eye could see. Huge beautiful mountains towering in every direction, it was breathtaking. It was so special to be in the area where the children were from. Tired and sick from the altitude change we reached the beautiful village which was high up the Himalayas. The views were out of this world to say the least.

On our arrival we were met by little tiny children from the village who were to be our very own guides. The village had a population of 500 people. They had their own electricity supply, they managed their own water system, flower mill and grew their own rice and vegetables. The village is predominantly self sufficient. This was evident by the lack of wool on the goats! They have their own school with a collection of volunteer teachers supplied by Umbrella and their own community centre. We were hosted in the village by all the families. They were so welcoming it was the best day of my life. Through the next generation project Umbrella were able to safely reunify twenty-seven children directly their families in April 2011. They continue to work closely with the other families through our social workers in the area and our ultimate goal was always to get the children back to their families. Reintegration is a sensitive area of work and not one that should be rushed.

Umbrella opened a transition home in Shyaphrubesi, Rasuwa in April 2011. It was a means of reuniting the other Rasuwa children with their communities of origin, while maintaining their health, well-being and safety. The home was part of our staged approach to full reintegration and the transition home was the centre for our continued efforts to reconnect the children with their families.

One year on, Umbrella is again very proud to announce that in March 2012, the transitional home closed as planned, and the 32 Umbrella children who had being living there since moving from Kathmandu in April 2011 finally moved back to live with their families full time!

It was the fulfilment of almost two years work and it is thanks to the amazing work of Tsewang, our manager in Rasuwa, and the team in Kathmandu, that their next step will be that of growing up surrounding by their families with Umbrella continuing to provide them with support and to regularly monitor their progress. 

I had just finished an Msc in Applied Sport & Exercise Psychology and had the world at my feet. However, no matter how organised, determined or strong I thought I was, nothing could have prepared me for this experience. I aim to go back to The Foundation as soon as possible. I met so many brilliant Nepalese people, and people from all over the globe who do outstanding work to help the less fortunate. The Umbrella Foundation and I would like to thank the Ballyshannon and Bundoran community and anyone who made a cake, bought a cake, went to bingo or bought a ticket during my fundraising campaign last year. Your charity went a long way indeed.

Namaste and Thank you.

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