American Kids Make Friends in Nepal

by Amy Roe

BELLEVUE, SEATTLE, Dec 28 – Christian Gebhart peered through wire-rimmed spectacles, his face frozen in concentration. Although the sheet of notebook paper before him was nearly empty, it seemed his mind was overflowing with ideas. Gebhart gripped his No. 2 pencil and in his cautious, fifth-grade penmanship, began a letter addressed to a Nepalese child he’s never met. He described Christmas, when “a fat guy in a red suit,” comes down the chimney, “They probably don’t celebrate it,” the Eastgate Elementary student said. “I just thought they’d really like to know all about it.”

In an era of e-mail and text messaging, written correspondence may seem old-fashioned. To Gebhart it’s a novel thrill.

“I’m really excited to have a pen pal,” he said. “I’ve never had one before.”

Gebhart’s longhand letter will land in the hands of a student at one of three schools in Kathmandu, Nepal: Disabled Newlife Center, Nandumaya Orphan Home, or the Kathmandu School for the Deaf.

Bellevue Rotary Club member Robert Rose set up the pen-pal exchange between the Nepalese schools and students at Bellevue’s Eastgate Elementary. A portrait photographer, Rose’s connection to Nepal dates back to 1997, when, prompted by a newspaper article, he visited the impoverished nation. He took along his camera and documented what he saw, from a row of jaunty marionettes to a disabled child leaning on his crutches.

(Rose has turned some of his images into note cards; Eastgate Elementary students will be selling them to raise funds for the schools their pen pals attend.)

The plight of disabled children struck Rose as especially poignant.

“A lot of disabled people here are integrated into the school system. There, they’re grouped together in homes. There’s a lot of villages in really bad situations,” Rose said. “There is no safety net there; there’s no social services. There’s very little government help.”

There’s also a stigma. According to Disabled Newlife Center’s Web site, www.disablednewlife.org.np, in Nepal disabled individuals are considered cursed, “and there is widespread belief that disability is linked to ‘bad karma.'” As a result, disabled children are often shunned by others, compounding their physical challenges with social isolation and low self-esteem.

Through Rotary Club and Bellevue Community College’s Rotaract, the collegiate arm of Rotary Club, Rose has helped raise thousands of dollars for schools that work to provide opportunity for advancement to such students.

With the pen-pal project, Rose hopes to raise awareness.

“There isn’t a lot of cost to this project,” Rose said. “It just takes some volunteers.”

In addition to exchanging letters with their overseas friends, students in Alex Rea’s fourth-grade class and Jennifer Rosenthal’s fifth-grade class will study the culture, dress, food and some of the language of Nepal.

On a recent Thursday morning, Rose brought Tsering Lama, a Nepali who now lives in Seattle, and Lama’s mother, Kanchi, to class to talk about Nepal and answer questions. Both wore traditional Nepalese dress, and Tsering Lama also wrote each of the students’ names in Nepali so that students could use the translation in their letters.

Rose showed a video he made during his visit to the school in March, in which a student describes the daily routine there. (He made no mention of the civil war between government forces and Maoist insurgents, or its subsequent civil unrest, which kept Bellevue Community College students from accompanying him on the trip.)

The vast differences between the two communities was evident. In Bellevue, for example, it seems a cell phone sprouts from every ear. In Nepal, there is about one telephone for every 118 people.

Rose said students are often shocked by the conditions in which Nepalese children their age live.

“It’s tough sometimes to answer the questions because it’s like, ‘Why?’ They can’t believe it. It’s difficult for them to comprehend,” Rose said, “but on the other hand, they’re right there, wondering what it is they can do to help.”

Rose said forging a personal connection between students is the first step: “I’m hoping it’s something that will stick with them for a long time.”