A Connection to Nepal—From Bridgehampton to Thame

IMG_5452 For more than 15 years, Leeli Bonney, grandmother to three Ross School students, has made an annual trip to Nepal, trekking in the mountainous terrain and working to help improve the lives of people living in the Himalayas. In 2007, Leeli founded Tara Foundation USA as a formal means of expanding her giving, which had started simply when she offered local residents the contents of her backpack. Over the years, she has become known throughout New England for collecting fleece jackets through school drives and other informal efforts to distribute to children as she treks. This year, plans were made for Alexandra McAuliffe (parent to those Ross students) to join her mother in Nepal in November.

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When news broke of devastating earthquakes in Nepal in spring 2015, Alexandra’s first call was to Leeli to check in with her contacts there and to find out whether they would still be able to make their highly anticipated trip. It quickly became clear that the need in the Khumbu region, where they planned to visit, had never been greater. Over the next several weeks they learned that many villages had been completely devastated. In a show of support, last year’s Ross Lower School Student Government organized a Dress-Down Day that raised $1,226 for the Tara Foundation.

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Despite cautions about traveling through the region in the wake of the earthquakes and the damage to the country’s infrastructure they caused, Alexandra and Leeli continued to plan their trip because they knew the people in the area were in need of their aid. This fall, Ross Lower School students and their families further contributed to the cause by donating more than 50 fleece jackets for Alexandra and Leeli to distribute during their travels.

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Alexandra described their travels as incredibly moving: “Our group traveled by plane from Kathmandu to Lukla (widely regarded as one of the most dangerous airports in the world) and trekked for four days to reach the village of Thame, at approximately 12,300 feet, one of the villages hardest hit by the earthquake. Most houses, made from local stone and mortar, had sustained considerable damage or completely collapsed. Traditional slate roofs, with wooden support, had to be replaced with tin in time for the monsoon season over the summer months. As we arrived in the village, we were surrounded by wreckage, but we were most impressed with the amount of rebuilding. Everywhere, we saw masons at work and heard the chink of hammers on stone.

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"Wood, a valuable resource, was largely repurposed, but on the trail we saw people carrying metal sheeting, rebar, and other materials, in addition to water, potatoes, rice, lentils, and other staples. Because tourism is decreased, our reception was an especially warm one. I was struck by the genuine happiness of the Sherpa people, even those whose lives have been plagued by hardship.

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“At the Thame School, enrollment is down. Students were waiting for our arrival in a circle outside the classroom building where relief workers were busy with construction projects. The elementary-age children performed a traditional dance in celebration of our visit. We piled up the fleece jackets on a bench by size. Very patiently, the students approached us. Without speaking a word of common language, we measured them and presented them with jackets that were received with clasped hands and a ‘Namaste.’ Afterward, the students tried on their new clothes and burst into smiles and laughter as they admired one another. We were thanked with traditional khata scarves draped around our necks.

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“We then continued to the Thame Health Clinic, the only medical treatment facility in the area, operated by Dr. Kami at no charge to Sherpa people. His practice is a busy one; patients walk for miles to visit him in Thame or at the Kunde Hospital, where the clinic treats all types of cases. It was our pleasure to present to Dr. Kami the funds raised by Ross School in conjunction with monies collected through Tara Foundation USA. After the earthquake, it was necessary for Dr. Kami to construct an entirely new clinic while continuing to give medical attention to the community. The support we provided has helped to make this ongoing service possible. We spoke at length about the resiliency of the people and the health challenges they face.”

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Alexandra says she “felt a sense of peace” on her return trek, as well “a new perspective and much gratitude, just in time for our own Thanksgiving. . . . Seeing my daughter’s well-worn orange fleece on a Nepali boy her age was heartwarming. I knew the color was an auspicious one and it seemed a hopeful gesture to pass it along to him.” On her return, Alexandra presented Ross Lower School with a string of prayer flags on behalf of the people of Nepal, and to further express her appreciation for the efforts made by Ross sixth graders, presented each student with a khata that she had carried back down the trail with her.

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