Vermonters Connected To Nepal Share Their Stories, Help With Relief Efforts

Apr 28, 2015

The news from Nepal last weekend was devastating, and as we learn more about the destruction of the massive earthquake there, we're also reminded that many people in Vermont have personal and professional connections to Nepal.

Here are some of the people trying to figure out ways to help.

Vermont For Nepal

In the Burlington area, there is a substantial Bhutanese population. Many spent years in refugee camps in Nepal. Among them is 19-year-old Tek Luitel, who is a student a Burlington High School. Yesterday he attended a meeting of students who are organizing fundraisers for earthquake relief.

“We can help them by donating some money. You don’t have to donate lots of money, but even $1 or $2, … we are human beings, we have to solve each other's problems,” says Luitel.

Jeetan Khadka is a youth outreach organizer at Spectrum Youth and Family Services. He's been helping the Nepali and Bhutanese community here bring their efforts together to support earthquake victims.

"We're a bigger Nepali community in Vermont, especially in the Burlington and Winooski area. We’ve been directly affected by this, and people in the community really wanted to help and organize to do something." - Jeetan Khadka, youth outreach organizer at Spectrum Youth and Family Services

“We’re a bigger Nepali community in Vermont, especially in the Burlington and Winooski area. We’ve been directly affected by this, and people in the community really wanted to help and organize to do something. At this moment, we can’t just fly and go to Nepal,” says Khadka. They created a Facebook page called Vermont for Nepal to help organize donations and relief for earthquake victims.

Himalayan Cataract Project

There are also Vermont organizations that have leveraged deep, professional expertise to do ongoing work in Nepal. When ophthalmologist Dr. Geoffrey Tabin joined the University of Vermont College of Medicine faculty 20 years ago, he started a non-profit called the Himalayan Cataract Project. It has dramatically lowered the rate of blindness among the Nepalese and improved the infrastructure of eye care generally. Since the earthquake, Dr. Tabin says that network of health centers, eye doctors and nurses is being put to use to aid victims.

Tabin says the Nepali doctors and nurses on the staff of the Himalayan Cataract Project at the hospital in Katmandu are trying to both treat patients and take care of their own families, who are also earthquake victims. “In a situation like this, now just three days out, we’ve been really rallying, trying to bring the kind of basic assistance that’s necessary,” says Tabin. “Trying to bring clean water and shelter has been a big priority. Our doctors have been really working around the clock helping deal with the trauma. Most of the injuries are traumatic. There are a lot of head injuries and a lot of eye injuries.”

"There are so many small villages of a few hundred to a few thousand people in between that are absolutely devastated, and where there are still a very significant amount of people with very traumatic injuries that have yet to be reached by help." - Dr. Tabin, Himalayan Cataract Project

Back in Vermont, their staff is trying to raise money from the project's donor base. On the first day of fundraising they raised more than $50,000.

“There are so many small villages of a few hundred to a few thousand people in between that are absolutely devastated, and where there are still a very significant amount of people with very traumatic injuries that have yet to be reached by help,” says Tabin.

Charlotte Teenager Living In Nepal

Maddy Hyams, an 18-year-old from Charlotte, was getting her first introduction to Nepal when the earthquake struck. She's spending a gap year in a remote village, living with a family on an organic farm. Her mother, Kristen DeStigter, says that although everyone is safe and that they have food from the farm, the house collapsed and they have no shelter. “They got hit quite hard. She was inside the house when the earthquake hit and was able to somehow run outside with the rest of the family. The house collapsed and even now they are not able to get back in to the rest of the house,” says DeStigter.

Maddy’s mother says the biggest challenge for them is not knowing what’s out there. “So they have no idea about road access. Would they be able to get to the town if they needed to? And they haven’t seen anyone come to them. So certainly no aid workers have found them at this point,” says DeStigter. She says Maddy is going to stay put because she is in a safe place with food and water, and they are waiting to hear about the road access to plan their next steps.

"They got hit quite hard. She was inside the house when the earthquake hit and was able to somehow run outside with the rest of the family." - Kristen DeStigter, mother of Maddy Hyams, an 18-year-old in Nepal for a gap year

Vermont Community Foundation

On the question of how to help and give aid to people in Nepal, we turned to the Vermont Community Foundation. Christopher Kaufman-Ilstrup, a senior philanthropic advisor there, says the organization tells people to take two approaches to disaster response. “You need to first of course be thinking about the immediate response to the disaster,” says Kaufman-Ilstrup. “There are going to be people who are in need of housing, food and shelter right away. The second approach is really about medium and long term recovery.”

"We encourage people [researching] organizations to give to to look for international organizations that have already been on the ground in Nepal ... rather than organizations that are going into Nepal for the first time." - Christopher Kaufman-Ilstrup, Vermont Community Foundation

The philanthropic advisor notes that typically, especially in international situations, monetary help is key. “We encourage people, as they are researching organizations to give to, to look for international organizations that have already been on the ground in Nepal on other developmental projects, rather than organizations that are going into Nepal for the first time.” For example, says Kaufman-Ilstrup, Oxfam or Save the Children have a longtime presence in Nepal. “I think that one of the things that I find really important in doing this work, is I look for groups that are collaborative in nature and not groups that are trying to make a name for themselves and only want to promote their own work, so you know that people are really filling in the gaps,” he says.

The Vermont Community Foundation has put together a resource page of organizations that are working on emergency response and longer-term recovery in Nepal.