BY WENDY HUNG
“The fact that you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you can’t do something. Because some people say, how can you stand all this need around you? You’re just a drop in a bucket.” That’s what Olga Murray, the founder of Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF,) tells people. In fact, she would have a hard time living in Nepal if she didn’t know that she could help kids. “Everything you do there has a ripple effect, kids that we have helped have all helped their families, educated their younger sibling, their parents. So it’s not just helping one person, ever.”
NYF is a non-profit organization that aids Nepalese children with: education, health care, housing and labor bondage. It was officially founded in 1990, after Olga visited the country in 1984 for the first time during a trekking trip and witnessed malnourished children, who all wanted to go to school. On top of a mountain, it was cold and dark, she was invited inside a hut then saw a rough board beside three children studying by a candlelight. “I went back to my tent and thought, ‘okay, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’” Olga had spent 37 years working in State Supreme Court, turning 60 years old, on the verge of retirement. “I didn’t want to sit around, polish my nails and eat bonbons. I wanted something that was interesting to me as my work.” In 1985, she returned to Nepal and met someone who worked in a boys orphanage. This time, she witnessed something out of a Charles Dickens novel: high walls enclosed fifty boys in one big room. They never went outside of the orphanage except to attend school across the street. She discovered that five children within the group were expected to pass college exams that year. Although it would cost $300/year to send each boy to college, the idea of education was brand new since most Nepalese parents were illiterate. In villages, parents couldn’t possibly afford schooling for their children. Under such dire circumstances, she decided to send all five boys to college.
Back in 1931, Olga arrived in Ellis Island with her family at 6 years old from Transylvania, Hungary. At 16, she graduated from New York’s public high school, right after Pearl Harbor. The world was in despair, she had no idea what she wanted in life but knew she had to travel, during a clamorous time prior to commercial airplanes in addition to World War II. Nonetheless, she ventured all over the country and returned home at 21 years old to attend Columbia University. After graduation, she worked for the famous muckraker, Drew Pearson, in Washington DC. “I loved working for Drew. For two years, I answered his fan mails that were of: praise, threats, tips on stories and many were asking for help. Everybody was afraid of him because he had such sources, but he was a good man.” Olga continued to work through Law School at George Washington University, then took the bar exam in California. At the time, only six women were sworn in, out of thousands. “In 1995, it was a difficult time for women.” Olga reminiscences, “even Sandra Day O’Connor, who graduated second in her class at Stanford Law, encountered questions such as, ‘Can you type?’ We were told that women were hired because judges would laugh us out of court.” Even so, Olga raised to the top as one of the first females at State Supreme Court and retired in 1992.
From being a lawyer to a giver, fundraising for NYF was one of the biggest changes in her life, especially for someone who has been on her own since 17. But seeing Nepalese children provided enormous motivation. She has welcomed them into the foundation at 4 or 5 years old, completely traumatized. Such children have lost their parents, needy because terrible incidents have erupted upon them. With Olga’s help, these children attend college, become successful. Naturally, they have all become Olga’s own children. “One of the first 5 boys that I gave scholarship money to is disabled. After failing college exam the first time, we encouraged him to study for the next one, he barely passed. But he’s been a teacher for the disabled all these years. He came a few months ago, he has brilliant kids that are studying engineering.” She now sees the second generation, she admits, it feels wonderful.
Education was the initial key focus with NYF, to this day, there have been thousands of children that Olga’s foundation has educated, from kindergarden to medical school. The organization now has two small children’s homes (one for boys, one for girls,) with an established program for malnourished children. Almost half of the kids, under age 5, are malnourished in Nepal, so Olga opened Nutritional Rehabilitation Home (NRH,) essentially a hospital for children who come with their mothers. Typically in one month, children are treated to health while mothers are educated on nutritional values by dietitians and doctors. “The kids literally come in looking like they’re going to die any minute. After one month, they become fat, happy and healthy kids. It costs $250/month for rehabilitation.” NRH targets nutritional education since everything necessary to nourish a child is readily available in Nepalese villages. Apparently, it’s more ignorance than anything else.
There’s also another labor bondage program that helps endangered girls who are bonded, sold by their parents to serve in the homes of wealthier people, often in the city. They are terribly abused in this horrible practice. So far, Olga’s foundation has brought 12,000 girls home and put them in schools. She notes, “we’ve supported them through high school, but now we’ve convinced the government to support them. With a big awareness program, we’re very close to eradicating the practice now.”
After more than 20 years of changing lives of thousands of children in Nepal, Olga stepped down as President of NYF this year. She is now 87, remains in excellent health, remains traveling back and forth between the Bay Area and Nepal. “People say: oh no, you’re going to a poor country. But I feel very lucky. They have no idea how much I’m getting out of it. I live in a comfortable house while getting the fulfillment of seeing kids grow up and I have little kids who are now in our children’s homes. So yes, it’s all very satisfying.”
She holds these children close to her heart, children who are the most resilient human beings that come from the most dreadful backgrounds. Recently, she received a little girl from a village with a brutal father who chopped up the mother with an axe. The little girl was found covered in blood that draped over her body. From seeing her now, one cannot imagine she has suffered such ghastly trauma. “All the children in our houses have been through pretty bad stuff, they’re so resilient, so cheerful and happy. They’re much happier than the American kids.” It’s no wonder why she holds every child incredibly close to heart.
It’s also no wonder that many say, once you go to Nepal, your life changes. Instead of seeing her efforts as a drop in the bucket, she highlights the Nepalese’s joy in life despite hardships they have been through. They are kind, generous and eminently joyful. This was what she was taken away by back in 1984, during her first trekking trip to this beautiful country. “They have so little, yet they are so much happier than we are. So it’s really culture that gets to you.” Such a lesson, is one for all of us.