The Gift of Potential

Small faces and hands crowd next to my own; gently clamoring for a view of the pictures on my phone. They want to know what my husband and my home looks like; is it cold in California? Which country do I like the best? How many brothers and sisters do I have? There are collective sighs as we scroll through pictures of my life-- one that seems very different than their own. I tell them that my family comes from Vietnam as we open a map to see how far away it is from Nepal. A video of my friend doing silly dance moves for the camera on her wedding day renders an eruption of giggles.

Several months ago, I made the decision to leave my job at a prominent Silicon Valley company to pursue an adult gap year. Before I left, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about my plans, mentioning that I wanted to see the Himalayas and do some volunteer work. He told me about Bishow Bhatta and NECO Foundation. A few weeks later, Bishow and I met for coffee at a local shop where we discussed trekking and the children’s home. I was struck by how passionate he was about his country and by his relentless pursuit to help others. There’s a saying that good energy is contagious. I found this to be true in the months that followed our conversation.

Dami whines softly as he watches the children depart on the school bus.

Fast forward to February of 2018, I find myself tightly gripping the handles on the back of the motorbike as I weave through Kathmandu towards the NECO home in Goldhunga. The ride is exhilarating; I can't help but grin as we flow through the brisk air and billows of dust along charmingly bumpy roads. Rows of hanging laundry, brightly painted buildings, and cluttered shops with impassive proprietor faces flash through my line of sight. The sound of horns speak a foreign language, communicating in a way I could only mildly grasp. Every now and then, my young driver would warn me, “very bumpy here, ma’am” as he slowed down to ride through the massive puddles. I’d later learn that my careful motorist, Ash, came to the NECO home at 5-years old, and has since found a job as a staff member after graduation. He’s affectionately called dai, as big brother to the children.

Monika and Sneha giving me a warm introduction to their home

As we pull into the property, an effervescent little girl with a round candy-shaped face named Monika jumps on Ash’s back as she shrieks with laughter. Samjhana, the ever-helpful operations manager captures a picture of us in front of the home in front of a welcome message. It’s not long before a eager girl named Sneha gently takes my arm and leads me into the Unity room to meet the rest of the family. It’s evident there is a lot of love here; even the furry young dog Dami plays nicely with his elderly counterpart Pinky and the boisterous rooster that roams the property. The NECO home perches on a hillside overlooking the sprawling city of Kathmandu; a haven from the chaotic streets, noise, and dust from below.

Each morning, I am greeted with steaming cups of sweet milk or spicy ginger black tea. The children take turns bringing it to me, giggling slightly when I say dhanyabaad, which means thank you in Nepali. They tilt their heads side to side with delight and always with a big smile. I am called didi, or sister Crystal here; a customary address in Nepali culture, yet a touching sentiment for me. As a traveler from a foreign land, NECO has also become my home too. I can't help but wonder what each child felt in their first moments on the grounds.

The savory smell of dal bhat wafts through the dining hall as the children eat their meal before school.

Every day, I witness acts of tenderness and respect. During meal times, the older children help the younger ones with food preparation and clean up. They encourage each other to eat more helpings of dal (lentil soup), tarkari (curry), and khana (rice). The seniors pitch in seamlessly with preparations inside of the kitchen and help with the cleaning. I see them show concern for one another when they’re feeling unwell. It’s not uncommon to catch the children giving each other warm squeezes to express their affection. Regardless of age, every child cleans up after themselves and takes the initiative to take care of any dishes left behind. In the mornings after taekwondo class, the girls take turns braiding each other’s hair as they get ready for school.  They call Indira, the main cook ama, which means mother. During the hectic morning bustle before the children board the school bus, general manager Ramesh stands in the courtyard straightening unruly collars and signs off on homework assignments. This isn’t a job for the staff members; this is a family.

During a brainstorming exercise, I asked them to sketch a design for a wall mural project. I received images of hands pressed together in namaste greetings, inspirational quotes, people with big smiles on their faces, and many instances of the word ‘home’. The younger children ran up to me; eager to share their their ideas on the whiteboard. The older children were more reserved, and smiled shyly when I asked to see their work. Bibash, one of the senior boys wore a hood over his head and drew silently using a ruler. He erased and crafted several iterations before finishing his sketch of a bird, which we later incorporated on our mural. It took a full day after this when I was finally able to see his unguarded laughter during a game as he impersonated a cow. It’s these kind of gifts that I look forward to witnessing each day that I am here.

Suman proudly reveals his design sketch for the mural. He includes a picture of Nepal with the national flag.

Despite coming from difficult circumstances, these children have carved their own life paths. They are articulate, curious, affectionate, and thoughtful. During one afternoon, one of the boys Aayush Rijal sat down next to me and studied each label in a large bag of medicine from the pharmacy. He’s been at NECO for nine years, and remembers when there were only two other boys when he joined. As he methodically examined each item, I caught a faraway look in his eyes that one only achieves when cataloging information. The next morning, Aayush told me he would like to become a computer engineer. This declaration made me smile-- what a wonderful fit for him. At a nearby table, a ninth grader named Sharmila told me she wanted to help other little girls by becoming a social worker. It’s impossible not to feel your own heart swell with inspiration upon hearing these stories.

Not everyone has the privilege to make the choice of where they live, how they feed themselves, or who they call their family. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine how arduous their lives could have been if it weren't for NECO. The trajectory of their lives have been drastically changed. So what have these children done with their opportunities? They have thrived. Suman, Bibek, and Dikshya learn a pop dance routine complete with lip syncing and taekwondo kicks choreographed by their big sister Babita. Ramesh and Resham show me how to flick the yellow plastic piece to score points in a game of carrom board. Sagar throws an impressive 360 degree tornado kick with such ease it’s as if he is floating in the air. Anusha and Simana instruct me on how to make the perfect cup of ginger black tea. Timati smiles modestly when I compliment his handiwork of cutting hair for the other boys. What I’ve been witnessing here is the realized impact of the gift of potential. Here at the NECO home, the children get the chance to find out exactly what kind of person they might be able to be.

Several of the children relish in the delight of painting their hands different colors while Samjhana snaps a quick photo.

Author: Crystal Le 

Posted in Volunteer Report.