Bridging the Opportunity Divide

These Orphans Are Growing up to Be Community Leaders

December 18, 2017
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These Orphans Are Growing up to Be Community Leaders
With its crushing patriarchy and extreme rural isolation, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Limited social and economic mobility puts its children at constant risk of being trafficked or forced into early marriage.

When Mun Maya Rawal, 24, travels to rural Nepal to check in on children orphaned by the 2015 earthquakes, it’s personal.

“I was an orphan just like you,” she says, sharing with them where she came from and what her life is like now: an independent young woman working towards a master’s degree in psychology.

Rawal is one of the first graduates of a program for Nepal’s poorest children established by two Americans, Bruce and Susan Keenan. Since 2000, the Keenans’ nonprofit, Himalayan Children’s Charities (HCC), has provided more than 200 children with care, education and mentorship. In March 2016, its first group of university students graduated, four of whom are currently enrolled in master’s degree programs.

“[It’s] really inspiring for these orphaned kids to see someone, from the same background, standing in front of them showing what the possibilities could be for them,” says Bruce.

Bruce and his wife, Susan, first met Rawal in 2003. She is a close friend of Nari and Chet, orphaned sisters whose schooling the Keenans started sponsoring in 1999. The Nepalese siblings asked the Keenans to help Rawal, too.

In Nepal, poverty is a crushing cycle. Poor children lack access to clean drinking water and food. They cannot attend school or see a doctor if they need to, and many are swept into child trafficking rings or forced into early marriages.

Almost half of Nepali women under the age of 49 are married before their 18th birthday. If a woman is widowed, she is often forced to get remarried out of financial necessity and give up any children from her first marriage. These kids end up living in overcrowded, underfunded and under-regulated orphanages where abuse often occurs. Worse yet, some grow up on the streets.

Determined to change the trajectory of Nari, Chet and Rawal’s futures, the Keenans started HCC, which runs several programs offering orphaned and abandoned children a loving home environment, quality English-language education (through university), and innovative mentorship and leadership training. The organization continues to mentor its students even after graduation.

“Most Nepali institutions and charities stop support when the kids turn 16 years old and finish 10th grade,” Bruce explains. “To think that these kids can then get a good job or contribute back to society, just doesn’t really work.”

After completing 10th grade, Rawal lived in HCC’s youth home in Kathmandu, known as Khushi Ghar, or “Happy Home.” Today, she works as a Program Coordinator at HCC Nepal. She has reconnected with her mother and hopes to help take care of her in the future.

“Without HCC, my life would have been hell,” Rawal says. “HCC has provided me with each and every facility that I needed.”

Another such graduate is Khil Bahadur Thapa, who came to HCC as a precocious fifth grader. At the time, he was living in a rural orphanage whose staff recognized that he was already smarter than the village teachers. Knowing that he’d greatly benefit from a more rigorous education, they contacted HCC.

“We look for children that are motivated to learn,” says Bruce.

Thapa, who has a degree in public health from one of Nepal’s leading universities, now runs HCC programs for orphaned children living with relatives in rural communities devastated by the 2015 earthquakes, and often runs health workshops and screenings in these communities.

“Though I’ve already graduated from the program, it’s not the end,” Thapa says. “It’s now the beginning of the new life – the life of giving back.”

The staff at HCC gives students individual attention, teaching each one how to budget, cook, clean, communicate, build strong relationships with their peers and help them focus on education and career planning. It’s a stable, loving environment where children thrive. There’s another key expectation from the HCC staff: community service. Children volunteer at orphanages, in rural communities and at local schools.

“My hope for these kids is that they’re happy, well-adjusted, living fulfilled lives and that they’re able to contribute back,” Bruce says. “We really encourage them to stay in Nepal and give back to their local community.”

By emphasizing service, Bruce and Susan hope to magnify the impact of their organization and disrupt Nepal’s cycle of poverty.

To accomplish this, the HCC family is actively growing a worldwide community of support that’s dedicated to making a difference in the lives of children in Nepal. Youth ambassadors like Rehna Sheth, a senior in high school from Alpharetta, Ga., whose family supports two girls at HCC, are helping to fundraise and spread the word about HCC’s work.

“When someone supports HCC, they are changing the life of a child, and this child grows into an adult dedicated to helping others and giving back to the community,” Susan says. “These kids are redefining what it means to be an orphan in this culture; they are a force and leaders helping to change the paradigm of inequality in Nepal.”

Himalayan Children’s Charities is transforming the lives of orphaned and abandoned children in Nepal by breaking the cycle of poverty and creating a generation of leaders giving back to their communities. Its mission is to provide care, education and mentorship to an additional 5,000 at-risk children in Nepal by 2020.