In my spare time I’ve recently taken up the role of trustee for a charity which provides sustainable aid for education in Nepal. It’s a privilege to be able to give something back to a country which has given me so much, and how I ended up doing this role has been an interesting story in itself.
When I first visited Nepal in 2002 it was a culture shock. I remember being mobbed at Kathmandu Airport by hordes of hustlers demanding tens of dollars for carrying my bag a few short metres to my bus. It was my first visit to a Third World country, and as we drove through the sea of demented traffic on the way to my hotel, with mopeds and rickshaws weaving between lunatic drivers beeping their horns like their lives depended on it, I looked at the shabby concrete buildings crammed with steel reinforcing bars, and I remember thinking that this wasn’t so much a building site as a war zone.
Three weeks later, by the time I left to fly back home, I kind of liked the chaos of Kathmandu, and I loved the mountains I’d spent most of my time exploring. The poverty no longer shocked me because I had spent many nights sleeping in very basic teahouses with no running water, and rooms consisting of a single bed with a dirty old mattress and walls made from thin timber panels. I became accustomed to it very quickly, and the scenery made up for the squalor a thousand times. Living among these narrow forested gorges surrounded by dramatic snow-capped mountains, the terrain is too severe to build roads, and everything has to be carried on foot, but I somehow sensed the people were happy there and enjoyed a good quality of life in spite of their poverty. And they had one priceless resource in abundance that we don’t have much of in the developed world – time.
I felt at home in Nepal and have been back nearly every year, but it wasn’t just the poverty that was a surprise to me on my first visit. I was a keen hill walker in the UK, but I imagined the Himalayas to be an altogether different proposition. I signed up for a group trek, and I was a little apprehensive about the other trekkers I would be sharing my holiday with. I expected they would be much fitter and more intrepid than I was, the sort of people who might wrestle a crocodile in Chitwan, or run up Poon Hill in the Annapurnas carrying a bag of rocks. I wondered whether I would be able to fit in. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my companions to be a group of elderly ladies from Ludlow, Shropshire, a quaint old town with a castle in Middle England. They would doubtless be able to knock up a jar of homemade strawberry jam much quicker than me, I thought to myself, but they’re hardly going to outpace me on the trail. I had been a little conservative with my choice of trek, which ended up being no more than a gentle pootle in the foothills, somewhat easy paced for a thrusting young hill walker. Even so I enjoyed it a great deal, and two years later it led to an opportunity for me to put something back into the country I was coming to love.
Cheryl, one of my fellow trekkers on that first visit to Nepal, put me in touch with her daughter Tina, who had spent a year travelling through Nepal and other parts of Southeast Asia. In 2004 Tina set up a charity, CHANCE, to provide support for children’s education in Nepal. In those early days of the charity much of the fundraising work involved finding donors in the UK to sponsor handpicked families from more deprived parts of Nepal and put their children through school. At the time I was doing a spot of freelance web development, and I agreed to provide a website and administrative support for Tina on a voluntary basis. As time went on Tina and her Nepalese husband Siling, a trekking leader, founded a non-profit trekking agency called The Responsible Travellers (TRT) to help raise money for CHANCE. I also provided web services for TRT as a volunteer, but almost as importantly my regular climbing and trekking buddy Mark Dickson and I became two of their biggest clients, using them to provide logistics for our private treks and climbs in Nepal (and I can highly recommend them!).
Times moved on for CHANCE, and the priorities for the charity have grown from straight support for individual children, to improving education and living conditions for whole communities. The emphasis is now as much on education as children, and much of CHANCE’s current work involves setting up sustainable income generation projects in villages. These projects enable communities to earn money to support themselves and not rely on donations. The charity was due for a re-brand and the old website I cobbled together for them in 2004 was looking very dated. At the same time a loyal and energetic set of UK trustees from Cheryl’s village of Kingstone in Staffordshire decided it was time to move on.
That easy trek in 2002 was the start of a journey that eventually led me to the top of the world, and when we returned to Kathmandu after our successful ascent of Everest last May, it was an honour when Tina asked me and Mark to join a new board of trustees for CHANCE. We both gladly accepted. Our role as trustees is to provide strategic direction and ensure funds are being spent in the best way possible, but we have both been getting our hands dirty with voluntary work since taking up the role. Mark has taken over responsibility for the CHANCE online shop, and has been busy looking after stock and setting up our eBay site. I’ve at last got to grips with a redesign of the CHANCE website, which I first started looking at three years ago when I travelled up to Kingstone and carried out a full web scoping workshop with the old trustees. All the data I gathered at the workshop on audiences and user tasks has been invaluable for putting together a new structure for the website (or information architecture, as it’s known in the industry I work in). We have set the site up using the WordPress blogging platform, and we hope to persuade some of our other volunteers to blog for us in the future. A CHANCE supporter Carol, who happens to be a graphic designer, has also very kindly volunteered her professional services to provide us with a new logo and branding guidelines for the charity.
We are still feeling our way around as new trustees, but we’ve been having regular catch-ups on Skype. As well as Tina, Mark and myself, Tina’s father Bill has taken over as treasurer and chief administrator, and Kerry, a teacher based in Kathmandu who is our new education advisor, complete the trustees. You can read all about our qualifications for the role on the new website. Exciting times are ahead. We have introduced a child-friendly teacher training programme into 64 schools, and are in the process of introducing the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award scheme into schools across Nepal. This latter task is something very close to the heart for me and Mark, as it’s been timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest. When Sir John Hunt returned from leading the 1953 British Everest Expedition, he was instrumental in introducing the Duke of Edinburgh Award into UK schools, so it seems appropriate to be taking it back to Nepal, the place where he had his finest achievement.
During my many visits to Nepal I have trodden paths through forests and over high passes. I have stood on summits of snow-capped mountains, and have made many friends among the people I’ve employed to carry my equipment, guide me through the mountains, and in some cases help to keep me alive in extreme conditions. I hope I’ve had a positive influence on the country in that time, but if not then this is my chance to give something back.
If you also love Nepal and any of this has piqued your interest, then please take a look at our marvellous shiny new website. There are many ways you can help, from making a simple donation, to buying and selling goods, volunteering, or getting sponsored for a charity event such as a fun run or climb. You can even just go for a holiday there. If you travel with The Responsible Travellers, whom I’ve had many fantastic journeys with, then the profits they make will go to CHANCE.
Meanwhile here’s a short video describing some of the work CHANCE volunteers have been doing.