If you think heading back to school is chaotic for students and parents in the U.S., take a moment and imagine what it might be like for children in rural Nepal.
Ridgway’s dZi Foundation works in eastern Nepal, where most of the Sherpa people live. The nonprofit, named for the ancient prayer beads believed to confer protection and good health on the wearer, was cofounded by Ridgway resident Jim Nowak, an alpinist who spent a lot of time climbing in the Himalaya and wanted to give back those who had given so much to him.
One of dZi’s key missions is to support local education. The pandemic has not made this easy: dZi stepped in and constructed new schools when the region’s structures were decimated by an earthquake in 2015. The new buildings were fortified against temblors, but keeping a virus out is another matter. COVID-19 “has dramatically affected education around the world,” a report prepared by Dipesh Gurung, dZi’s quality education program coordinator recently pointed out. “While this has been challenging for all schools, the situation has been really difficult for remote regions in Nepal that have less access to resources.”
The government, Gurung explained, categorized students “into five groups,” based on their access to resources (such as a computer with the internet, all the way down to “no access to any type of technology, including radios or TVs”).
The students in the region dZi supports are in the latter category.
The risks are dire for students who have been cut off from education. While the country’s boarding school attendees have access to technology, rural “parents often do not have the knowledge and skills to support their children” at home, and the students “have been less engaged, increasing the risk for child labor and child marriage,” Gurung has said.
To help address these problems, dZi has distributed “self-learning tools and materials to students.”
It has provided SIM cards to parents who have phones (so kids can keep learning via cellphone).
Despite the pandemic, construction was completed on a new primary school in June of this year. Workers also installed new drinking water stations, and a new bathroom, at two secondary schools.
In a message via What’s App to this reporter, Gurung was steadfast in his determination to keep on: “I’ve always believed that quality education and equity are the primary needs of our rural communities,” he wrote. “We’re moving toward achieving our dream of transforming our rural community into an empowered, prosperous one.”
The conveyor of that communiqué was Wende Valentine, dZi’s new executive director, who was in Nepal recently on a related mission. “We’re embarking on a new five-year strategic plan,” Valentine explained, “and as part of that process, it’s been important to evaluate who dZi is, why it exists, what it’s doing, and how we can measure our impact. The process has been powerful: this team has an incredible amount of energy, and momentum, and commitment.”
The nonprofit’s team, in effect, has built-in inspiration: “Through dZi’s support in my education, my life has transformed beyond my imagination,” program officer Sharmila Shyangtan told the Daily Planet. “As a program officer at dZi now, I look forward to emphasizing the equity and empowerment of women and girls through our holistic approach to education, health and livelihoods in rural communities.”
The approach is holistic because dZi works in partnership with locals, asking them what they most need, and then teaming up to assist. One of executive director Valentine’s most treasured moments during her visit came not just from team-building sessions, but from out of the blue. “We were hiking above our country director Ang Chopka Sherpa’s house one afternoon, and on our way back down the hill, we passed four young adults,” Valentine said. “None of us were wearing dZi shirts” or hats, or anything that would have identified them as being from the foundation. Nevertheless, “One of the young women pointed to Chopka and asked, ‘Are you from the dZi Foundation?’ Chopka said, ‘Yeah.’”
“I’ve known about you for the last eight years,” the young woman said. “You’ve been a part of my upbringing. I’ll never forget getting our first toilet,” through dZi’s assistance. “It’s changed my family’s life and economic opportunity,” the young woman went on. The combination of water, and sanitation, and agriculture “enabled my mom to grow a kitchen garden, and eventually to grow crops, and to take them to market.”
The new building dZi constructed after the 2015 earthquake enabled the young woman to go to school.
“She’s now in college in Katmandu, getting her bachelor’s degree in business,” Valentine said. “Now her motivation is to return to help others, once she gets her degree.
“It was super exciting. Because of COVID restrictions, I couldn’t get out into the field during this visit,” and observe the impact the foundation is making on local communities. “And yet,” Valentine said, “the field came to me.”
To learn more about the dZi Foundation and its projects, or to make a donation, visit dzi.org.