dZi

Four-year-old Anish Dahal, from Rakha, Nepal, on his way to school. A representative of Ridgway’s dZi Foundation, which constructs earthquake-proof buildings in eastern Nepal, recently encountered the youngster while on a monitoring visit to Rakha, in the Khotang district. (Photo courtesy of the dZi Foundation)

It’s a New Year, with a new U.S. President installed in the nation’s capitol.

In Ridgway, there’s been a transformation with international repercussions, as well: The dZi Foundation, a nonprofit partner of Mountainfilm, has a new executive director.

Her name is Wende Valentine.

She’s been on the job for a week.

“A powerful advocate for social and economic equity,” Valentine “brings 20 years of rich field experience with international nonprofits all working to beat the cycle of global povery locally,” a news release said. The dZi Foundation’s mission is to create lasting improvements by partnering with remote communities in Nepal. The nonprofit was cofounded by Ridgway resident Jim Nowak, who was inspired to give back after his successful mountaineering expeditions to that country.

Valentine’s own experience and passions align with dZi. So much so that “From the moment this position was proposed to me, I felt, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be right now,’” Valentine said. “There was no hesitation.”

Instead, the move seems like a natural progression in an international-development career that has involved extensive fieldwork on four continents, advocating for many of the same issues that dZi focuses on. Chief among these is access to adequate water and sanitation: among her professional accomplishments, Valentine originally managed Water for People’s International Programs in Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Malawi and India and then later became the regional manager for the nonprofit in Africa and India.

She has a longstanding familiarity with dZi. Valentine, who lives in Evergreen, first worked with Nowak (dZi’s president as well as its cofounder) in Sikkim, India, in 2003, as part of her master’s degree in international development from the University of Denver. “The world of international development was calling to me,” she said. “I combined my honeymoon with my husband, in Rajasthan, India with an independent study project with dZi.”

“I’m thrilled that after nearly two decades of development work, I’m coming back, full-circle, to dZi and to this incredible opportunity to partner with such an extraordinary team of people in Nepal’s most vulnerable communities.”

The timing is auspicious. The world is increasingly focusing on female leadership — witness Kamala Harris’s swearing-in just this week as the first female vice president of the U.S. “I believe the choice of a female to work with dZi’s female director in Nepal” was part of the plan, Valentine said. “The selection was intentional. Worldwide, there’s a push for inclusivity right now.” It’s a movement that resonates deeply with dZi’s leadership: Nowak’s first volunteer work in Nepal was to raise money for the Friendship House, a safe house for at-risk girls. For her part, Valentine spent years working for Guatamala-based MAIA Impact, a nonprofit responsible for opening the country’s “first female, indigenous-led secondary school.” Most recently, she was its director of development.

“For the last decade, I’ve worked for women’s empowerment,” Valentine said. She’s made several trips to Nepal over the years, and looks forward to returning as soon as international travel can resume safely. “I’ll be there at the first opportunity,” she said. “I’m already in direct communication with the Nepal team” via Zoom, “and will be in touch with them weekly.” She called the opportunities to continue “this impactful trajectory” “endless.” This is no hyperbole: she lives with an expert. Valentine is married to alpinist, filmmaker and U.N. Mountain Partnership Ambassador Jake Norton, who recently led a team of mountaineers to Mount Everest to help solve the mystery of whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were first to reach its summit. (Like the dZi Foundation, Norton was very involved in raising funds for Nepal’s earthquake victims.) “Jake’s been there 30 times, and speaks Nepali. His expertise is in the history and culture of Nepal, while my work is in international development,” Valentine said. “Our whole family is invested in the people, and the progress, of this country.”

As she prepared for a drive from Evergreen earlier this week to dZi’s stateside HQ in the San Juans, Valentine reflected, “It’s sweet — and really, really cool — to be returning to this family of trusted friends. I used to live in Telluride” (she volunteered for the San Miguel Resource Center, which advocates for at-risk women and families), “and Jake and I were married in Ridgway. This is a very special place for us.”

In short, “It feels like coming home.”

To learn more about the dZi Foundation’s projects in Nepal and how it is working to assist during the pandemic, or to make a donation, visit dZi.org.