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Catonsville Native Brings Fundraising Effort For Nepal School to Baltimore

Uli Loskot
GET SMART: Catonsville native Christopher Heun's travels in Asia inspired him to start the Santi School Project, which will build a school for children in a remote village in Nepal.

By Randy Leonard | Posted 11/14/2007

When Christopher Heun first met Lila Tamang, Heun was on a 10-month backpacking excursion through Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand. He ran into Tamang on a street in Katmandu, Nepal.

Tamang was from a small village in an area called Ramche in the mountains near Tibet. About half the residents of the village are Tamang, a small ethnic minority in Nepal that, according to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has been the victim of human-rights abuses. The Tamang people, who make up about 5 percent of the Nepali population, reportedly account for half of the Nepali women forced into South Asia's sex trade. "They are sort of the lowest rung on the social ladder," Heun says.

Lila Tamang, 38, had once been a schoolteacher in Ramche, but the school was the victim of political tension. Heun believes that because many of the villagers are of the Tamang minority the powers that be allocated resources elsewhere. "It's sort of like urban schools in this country," Heun says.

With funding for the school cut, it was forced to shut down in 1999, and Tamang headed to the city to look for work. He was an unemployed tour guide when Heun met him on the streets in 2003.

"I didn't really know what to make of him at first," says Heun, a native of Catonsville who now lives in New York City. Heun had grown accustomed to poverty-stricken people approaching him on his travels across Asia, trying to hawk their wares or get help in obtaining a visa. Tamang was different. "You know, I was used to strange people coming up to make conversation," he says. "But this guy was really a sincere person."

Heun had no idea at the time that this encounter would lead him to spearhead a project to reopen a school in Ramche--a mission for which Heun is coming to Baltimore later this week to raise money.

Heun, 34, who is described by friends as a down-to-earth, regular guy, says he traveled to Asia four years ago because he was fed up with working for a technology magazine based in San Francisco. He was struck by the generosity of the people he met on his journey who were willing to take him into their homes and feed him, despite the fact that they were surviving on very little themselves. "These are very, very poor people," he says. "And they are sharing what they have with you."

Tamang, for instance, "lived in this room in Katmandu that was about as big as an elevator, and he shared it with his brother, and there was no running water," Heun says. The two hit it off and traveled across Nepal together. They made a trek to Tamang's village. There are no roads that lead to the village, and it's nearly a 90-minute hike to the nearest town.

Most people in the village are farmers who struggle to scrape a meager living from the terraced mountainside. The village children work alongside the adults, and since education is not compulsory in Nepal, few ever would go to school--and none, now that the village school closed down.

Heun returned to the United States later in 2003 and took a data-entry job at Camden Yards. But his travel in Asia, he says, changed him. He often thought of Tamang and sent him letters and, from time to time, a little money. Tamang would respond with photos. After two years, Heun decided he wanted to do something substantial for the people in Ramche who had made such an impact on his life, and he started exploring the idea of reopening a school in the village.

"I realized that it wouldn't take too much to help this guy benefit the children in his village," Heun says, so he wrote a letter to Tamang asking if he would be interested in taking on the project. "He wrote back that he would."

In July 2006 Heun attended the Annual Nepali Association convention in New York, where he met representatives from two organizations, the Society of Ex-Budhanilkantha Students-North America (SEBS-NA) and the Nationwide Scholarship Program (NSP). Yubraj Acharya, then-secretary of SEBS-NA, helped Heun develop a proposal for the project, and Bijaya Babu Shiwakoti, the chair of the NSP, worked with Tamang and others to move the proposal, dubbed the Santi School Project, forward.

Heun was excited by the progress.

"When he was talking to me about it last December, he was so passionate about it," says Jackie Lesh, a friend of Heun's who lives in Baltimore. She says his friends were originally skeptical of his idea and of his trust in Tamang, wondering whom this person was way off in Nepal that Heun was sending money to. "We were all questioning him." But once the Santi School Project obtained nonprofit status, his friends realized that his project was legitimate.

Heun set a goal of raising $20,000 to build a school and buy supplies. Over the summer, he kicked off fundraising for the school at his parents' church, the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, with an event that raised nearly $2,400. Since then, through various other fundraising efforts including a concert held in New York on Sept. 25, the Santi School Project has raised $13,000.

In Baltimore, two of Heun's friends, Lesh and Laura Parkhurst (both teachers), volunteered to raise money for the school as well. Parkhurst has known Heun since they were children. "Even though . . . it seemed a little far-fetched at first," Parkhurst says, "I knew that if [Heun] took it upon himself he would find a way to do it."

The two women organized an event for the Santi School, scheduled for Nov. 17 at Load of Fun Studios on North Avenue, that will include a silent auction of local artists' work. On Dec. 16 the 8X10 will hold a concert to benefit the project. Heun will attend both events to present his vision for the Santi School, and he says he hopes the benefits will raise the remaining $7,000 needed to fund construction, and the project's organizers hope the school can begin operating in April 2008.

So far, Heun says, the land for the school has been purchased; because no roads serve the town, residents have been carrying building materials for the school to the village on foot. Heun receives updates on their work, including photos of a makeshift quarry, set up to get building stone for the school. "The pictures are just of guys in their flip-flops and shorts, with a pickax, chipping away," Heun says.

Shiwakoti has made numerous trips from Katmandu to the village to meet with Tamang and others to ensure they are doing the necessary things to work with the local authorities. And the government of Ramche has agreed to pay the salary of one teacher for the school's first year.

The NSP will oversee the operation of the school and help fund it for the first two years. The biggest challenge, Heun says, will be figuring out how to transfer responsibility for the school to the village residents after that.

The day after the benefit concert at the 8x10, Heun is flying to Katmandu to get a firsthand look at the progress. Lesh is hoping to visit the school next summer to provide English instruction to teachers and children. "They would love it if there were a native English speaker showing up to help," Heun says. "English is important because the prestigious high schools in Nepal conduct much of their classes in English."

As for Tamang, he has moved back home and is now married with two children. He was elected by the villagers to oversee the construction of the Santi School and he looks forward to its completion.

"My dream and aspiration is to make good human beings," Tamang wrote in a recent letter to Heun. "I want to help all of them because the whole village is one family."

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