A Himalayan Quest – I need your help!

Nepali School Children

Early Sunday morning, two brothers will pick me up from my hotel in Kathmandu. We will drive several hours to a place called Sole Bazaar and from there I hear it's an eight-hour hike by foot, through areas infested with leeches, to the remote village where the project is located.

This isn't a photo expedition or a mini-vacation. If the weather holds out, I will be taking plenty of photos but that's not the purpose of this trip. I'm doing this for the kids like those in the photo above.

So where am I going? I'll be visiting the project site for a small non-profit organization called Nepal FREED, whose primary goal "is to make education more accessible for the children of Nepal". The group helps build, fund, and run schools using local materials and local labor.

As I've mentioned before, I wholeheartedly believe that the best way to change the future is through our children. Their education will determine their ability to continue working towards a better world.

Nepal FREED is a very small organization founded by a man who grew up in Nepal and who now lives and works in California. His entire family is involved in the project -- it's his two brothers who are picking me up. Neither of them speak English, so hopefully they bring an interpreter (maybe I should've taken that crash course in Nepali after all).

How I heard of project is a story of its own. A close friend of the founder read the Small Ways to Make a Big Difference ebook and he was intrigued by my vision for using technology to help make the world a better place. He has similar ideas and sent me an email asking if I would be interested in getting involved with his friends' project.

It would've been easy to say yes and write a long blog post about the organization asking everyone to go support them (that's not what this is). I could've helped them redo their website and set up a Twitter account. I could've used my own Twitter account to spread word about their cause. But I didn't do any of those (at least not yet).

In a world where people are doing and saying anything to clamber for attention, all we have is who we are; all we have is our integrity. If who we are is tarnished -- if our integrity is weakened -- we stand little chance of really being trusted.

One way to weaken our integrity is to jump on any and all available opportunities without hesitation and without putting much thought or research into who or what is involved. Taking the easy and cheap way out rarely builds integrity.

I've always been extremely skeptical and cautious when it comes to money. I know how powerful a drug greed can be and how quickly even the best intentions can turn evil (I wrote about this earlier).

So I replied to the email and explained that before I used my voice to spread the word about this project or support them, I wanted to see for myself the work they're doing. I wanted to see the schools with my eyes and shake hands with the people in charge.

You can really tell a lot about a person just by meeting them and if the past four months have taught me anything, its that firsthand experience in any situation has enormous power.

I also realized that I needed to put my feet where my mouth was -- I needed to start turning all those feel-good words and big dreams for a better world into tangible actions on the ground. If the ebook project was my first digital step in this new direction, this was to be my first step in the real world.

There are lots of ways to start making a difference. Is this the best thing for me to be doing with my time? I'm not sure, but it's definitely better than sitting in a cafe.

Any action is better than no action. My instinct told me to go with this, so that's where I'm going. This decision is way outside my comfort zone, so at the very least there will be plenty of inner development.

But I really need your help on this one. This is my first time touring an NGO project or doing anything like this and I have no idea what questions I should be asking.

If you were in my place and you were considering helping support Nepal FREED, what would you want to know? What questions would you ask the people in charge? Please share this post with others so they can provide feedback as well!

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  1. off the top of my head, i’d want to know:
    * how many kids attend each school
    * what they’re learning
    * what the realistic goals for the students are after they finish their studies
    * what percentage of students complete all grades the school offers {in America, for example, how many graduate high school}
    * are other services provided for the children {innoculations, clothing, etc}
    * how is tuition paid? are students expected to pay for classes, is the schooling free to anyone who wants it, do they raise support for tuition?
    * how are teachers trained?
    * do they partner with other organizations? for example – the guy who wrote the Three Cups Of Tea book is doing something similar in Afghanistan, and TOMS shoes does shoe drops all over the world for kids just like these.
    * do they have to deal with cultural restrictions for who gets an education? in some areas, girls may be less likely to be schooled than boys, for example. how do they deal with that?

    i’m sure there’s more, but that’s what i could think of. hope it helps!

    • Wow, Robyn, you couldn’t have given a better example of the kind of response I was looking for! I’m going to take all of these questions with me and try to get them all answered.

      Thank you so much!

  2. What a great experience! I don’t have any experience actually “touring” an NGO, so I speak from the perspective of a long-distance philanthropist. :0)

    When I consider supporting a non-profit and/or NGO, I do some research to answer some questions: What is their official mission? Staff organization? Operations? Finance/budget? Where has money been spent in the past? What are their success stories? Who are the founders? What are their challenges and opportunities? Specific projects? And most importantly, how easy was it for me to acquire that information? Does a third-party evaluation exist?

    Perhaps I am cynical to be so picky! It feels that way sometimes! But I want my donations to be as impactful as possible. With that in mind, I need to be confident every dollar is helping as much as it can.

    I hope that helps! Nepal FREED’s mission seems like a great one and I look forward to hearing about what you discover there. :0)

    • Hi Danielle!

      I’m totally with you when it comes to being picky and wanting to know as much as possible (honestly, I would only feel comfortable if I physically visited the place, but then I can be a little extreme!).

      This was extremely helpful. Thank you! 🙂

    • good questions Danielle – i love how you think big like this {and it’s not cynical at all!} when it comes to your donations. i wouldn’t have thought to ask about the way the organization functions!

  3. Wow! Have an awesome excursion. Looking forward to what you find out and seeing the photos.

    Looks like your ebook is making a difference in the world 😀

    I’ll read it when life slows down. Right now spare time is being used to help Nhi (a 7yr old in Viet Nam with a brain tumor).

  4. Hi Raam,

    I think the other commentors have given you some great questions to ask. I just wanted to say that this is a very inspiring story and I’m so glad that you listened to your intuition to accept the challenge of visiting this village and seeing for yourself what you can do.

    We have to do the things that scare us sometimes in order to grow as human beings – I can imagine how scary this situation can be for you, particularly the 8-hour hike through leech-infested areas(shiver!) to meet people you never have before.

    I commend you for doing this, particularly from where I sit (in my nice air-conditioned office). You’re taking action where others can’t.

    I’m looking forward to the follow-up article(s).


    • Thank you, Karen!

      The funny thing about this path that I’ve chosen — funny in a personal development sense — is that it’s probably the one path that guarantees unlimited challenges, certian failures, and a never ending stream of fears to face. That said, all the fears appear equal and therefore not worth wasting time worrying about!

      I look forward to sharing my journey with you here! You might be sitting comfy in a air-conditioned place, but you’re doing a lot — your support and encouragement reach right through this screen to motivate me. 🙂

  5. Hi Raam,
    Robyn and Danielle cover lots as far as questions. I know the FREED website also said they contribute to the local health post, so I’d ask about that as well..
    How exciting for you that this is your first real world step in this direction..you will have abundant resources for each step you take. I think it’s wise for you to consider before saying yes, as you will be inundated with requests, and will be unable to assist all…
    Please remember to take the time to turn off your mind to allow your senses to enjoy all of this as you journey through it..how incredibly fun for you!

    • Hi Joy!

      Thank you for reminding me about the health post… I almost forgot about that! I also appreciate the reminder to soak in the experience while I’m here — it’s so easy to get caught up in the mission and totally skip the experience! I do that all the time when I’m too busy taking photos and u forget that I have my own memory bank to store images! 🙂

  6. Raam,

    Kudos for putting your money where your mouth is, going to the place and seeing the people is so direct and courageous and straight-up. I’m impressed – I really admire no-nonsense action and taking responsibility.

    I wish I had experience to share with you, but the best I can do is tell you about two organizations that do this kind of work that I admire and trust because I know people in the structure: Southern Cross Humanitarian http://www.sxhu.org/ (my friends went recently to work on improving orphanages in Peru) and Groundswell International http://groundswellinternational.org/.

    Good luck!


    • Thank you, Linda!

      Sharing information about organizations you trust is plenty helpful! I really feel like we need more community sharing of such information — more people who trust each other sharing knowledge about where good work is being done.

      I will take a look at both websites before my visit to Nepal FREED.

  7. Hi Raam!

    I congratulate you and encourage you to continue with this project of life. You’re given a friendly hand to those who more need it. The children, tomorrow’s future.

    ” Whatever they grow up to be, they are still our children, and the one most important of all the things we can give to them is unconditional love. Not a love that depends on anything at all except that they are our children.” – Rosaleen Dickson

  8. Hi Raam,

    I think that I would want to know from the people on the ground what their vision for the schools were. The teachers – what would they like to be able to do more of for the children. What ara the biggest challenges they face? What would make the biggest difference to them? Often the answer to that is not money!

    Safe traveling


    • Hi Marion!

      Those are excellent ideas! I think asking the teachers directly would be the best way to hear what is really needed. And like you said, it’s not necessarily money!

      Thank you so much for the comment! 🙂

  9. hi! check where the money goes right from the donors pocket to the children, corruption is a big problem.
    i now for a fact that each child in government schools in Delhi receive only 1/2 to 1/3rd the amount that they should get.

    • Thank you, Varuni! Corruption is a big problem everywhere and I think that’s probably one of the most important and hardest things to watch out for.

      I’ve been told by entrepreneurs here in Nepal that it’s extremely expensive to set up an NGO in Nepal because the government imposes heavy taxes on them. That’s why it’s easier and cheaper to come in as an entrepreneur and start a business that indirectly benefits the people.

  10. Hello again Raam,

    Having worked and taught in third-world countries I think is is essential to ensure that the curriculum being taught is within the cultural structure of the children of Kathmandu. The cultural aspects of things like reading books must not be foreign to them.
    I know that when I taught in PNG, the students struggled with the hand-me-down reading books that had been sent from Australia. The students had never been to a circus, nor had they gone to things like skating rinks, yet they were being asked to read about them – all well and good once the children are au fait with the process, but not as emergent readers!
    I would also like to see them involved in the largest university in the world, that is, the environment. Being taught how to live within the contraints of their environment, knowing that if you take you must also give back is inordinately important.
    Is the curriculum going to be one where the students are charged to think and negotiate? These are important aspects of educating students for the demands and challeneges of the 21st century.
    I hope you have a wonderful experience Raam. The Nepalise people are incredibly warm and hospitable people. You will be made welcome.

    • Hi Maria, thanks so much for the comment!

      Books are definitely a problem in Nepal — the all-girls school I visited had over a hundred students but only 27 textbooks! The books they have are in Nepali, but a bigger concern for them seems to be the lack of English skills. They realize that if they can read, write, and speak English, a whole world of opportunities opens up to them. More than anything, they want to learn English.

      As for being involved with the environment, many of them spend their entire childhood helping farm the fields and their whole lifestyle involves being close to nature. That said, I think it’s extremely important for them to understand how valuable such an environment is and how easily it can be destroyed with trash and pollution. Being close to nature is one thing, but it’s something else entirely to understand how it relates to the bigger picture.

  11. I look at any change as a project.

    With that in mind, I look for basic project essentials:
    – What’s the problem? Who’s the Customer? What does success look like?
    – What’s the vision?
    – What are the goals?
    – What are the outcomes?
    – What are the deliverables?
    – What are the tests for success?
    – What’s the timeline?

    From there, I think it’s easy to figure out — is it worth the investment and is the investment working.

    I think the main warning sign is when a project is about “activities” and spending time or energy, but lacks clarity on the outcomes or results.

    • Thanks, J.D.!

      You bring up a good point about projects being about “activities” vs clear outcomes or results. During my visit, I learned that Nepal FREED doesn’t actually run the schools, but rather they build the schools and help set up the committee and hire teachers. Once the school is running, it’s hands-off for them except when funds are needed to pay teachers or buy school materials.

  12. Thank you Raam for simply inspiring this conversation. Like Linda, I also really admire those who take action and responsibility for the world around them. Maria’s comment about choosing relevant curriculum is also very helpful.

    I work with Food For Life Vrindavan. This program has 3 schools in Vrindavan, India. They also do food distribution, manage a hospital, provide wells, educate village women about cleanliness and nutrition, etc. They have a variety of powerful programs and are run with the highest standard of integrity. I recommend checking their website out as it may inspire you with more questions or suggestions for FREED. http://www.fflvrindavan.org/index.php?S=1&Folder=1

    Thank you for your work and for contributing to a community of positive, forward-thinkers!

    • Rangadevi,

      Thank you for the link! It looks like Food For Life Vrindavan is doing some incredible work. I think we need more examples like that for other NGOs to follow, where their projects are more “results oriented” than “activity oriented”, as J.D. pointed out in another comment.

      Nepal FREED appears to be very results oriented in that they aim to set up the schools and then stay as hands-off as possible to allow the schools to run themselves, only providing help when needed.

  13. Wow, I don’t know what I’d ask. My instinct tells me that talking to the people who are being helped would be the best place to start, but I might be wrong…

    However, I love this approach! Even just going there without the perfect list of questions will make a huge difference. Not to mention the example you are showing to all of us: writing about these topics is important, but ultimately, the real world actions are what will create the change!

    • Thanks Jarkko,

      When I visited the all-girls school, they had all the students (about 50 of them) stand up one-by-one to introduce themselves and give each of them the opportunity to say something. Many of the students talked about the need for more textbooks (there’s only 27 textbooks for about 100 students in the whole school). Some also mentioned the need for more English training.

      I think talking directly to the students is definitely the best approach — after all, they’re the ones who would know best! That, and the teachers would also be a great place to start.

  14. I think this sounds really exciting, and you are totally doing the right thing by going there and seeing it with your own eyes. Good for you for taking the time and energy to do that. I don’t have any advice for you about what questions to ask, partly because I think almost any school is better than none, but I was reminded of this book I read a few years ago by the person who started Room to Read. Are you familiar with his mission? http://www.leavingmicrosoftbook.com/
    Good luck with your time there and the next steps this takes you on.

    • Hey Jenna,

      I’d have to agree with you that any school is better than none. These are not children who have schools and need better ones; these are students who will spend their childhood and teens working all day in the fields harvesting corn and rice if they don’t have a school to go to. I think that fact alone means any school is better than no school!

      Thank you so much for mentioning Room to Read — I hadn’t heard of them until now! Their mission sounds incredible and the idea of “action-oriented optimists” really resonates with me. One of the things I heard mentioned over and over by the students and teachers was the need for a library. My gut instinct is to figure out how we can use technology to get them the ultimate library (the Internet), but even an old-fashioned library is better than nothing at all!


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