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The Willow Journal





Note: Last spring, Deb joined with the Bhotias on a trek to Nepal. This article is a follow-up to our first story and is a call to all to step up and give to this beautiful cause and enjoy an amazing evening in the process.


Karma and Jyamu did not get a hot lunch, or any food at all, when they went to school as children.

“I was 11 years old, Jyamu was 12 years old when we moved to school,” Karma Bhotia, who founded the nonprofit Bhotia Foundation with his wife Jyamu, said.

“We don’t have money, we don’t have family, we don’t have parents and we don’t have enough to eat. We just pretend we are not hungry.”

That’s why they started a hot lunch program through the foundation in 2014. They know how much it means.

Not only can students stay healthy and focused in the classroom, it serves as a kind of beacon. Mothers who know their children will be fed while they’re at school are more likely to send them.

Last year, the foundation was able to serve a hot lunch to 850 students in the remote villages of Nepal. And, just one ticket to the foundation’s upcoming fundraiser – “An Evening in the Himalayas,” from 5:30-8 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 14, at the Durango Arts Center – will cover the cost of a hot lunch for one student for an entire year.

Karma and Jyamu grew up in Chyamtang, a farming community in the northeastern mountains of Nepal. Even though the two didn’t have money or a hot lunch, they considered themselves fortunate to go to school and get an education. It changed their lives.

That’s why they work hard to make that opportunity available to others.

One of the first things they did after founding the Bhotia Foundation in 2014 was to build a library in Chyamtang, and the hot lunch program soon followed.

Each time the couple returns to Nepal, they take donations – like toothbrushes, soccer balls, eyeglasses and more – but both Karma and Jyamu know it’s not enough to offer supplies. It’s the education and knowledge that is the catalyst for change.

The heart of the home

In most of the homes in the remote Nepalese villages of Nepal, Karma explained, a campfire burns in the center of the house. It’s been a part of the culture for more than a thousand years, serving not just as a heat source but a direct, spiritual connection to the flame.

The smoke rises up and collects inside, covering everything with a thick black blanket of soot and ash – including the lungs, noses and throats of the people who live there.

When the children living in the home cough and cough, day after day, with mucus constantly running from their noses, no one in the village makes the connection that it might be the smoke. The same flames they believe are protecting the home and the people inside are, in fact, doing just the opposite.

“It’s a part of the culture,” Julie Korb, professor of biology at Fort Lewis College, said. She, along with her family, Karma, Jyamu and others, visited Nepal this past spring.

During that visit, they were able to convince two families (both related to the porters who were on the trek) to remove the fire pits in their homes and install stoves.

After just a few days, the mom of one of the porters noticed her eyes stopped burning. She coughed less often. She also noticed she used far less firewood.

The smoke can be the start of a long list of health problems, including illnesses like bronchitis, asthma or even pneumonia.

“It’s a small change, but it has a huge impact,” Korb said.

Since it can take three to four days to get help or medicine from towns or cities like Katmandu, some people never quite recover and others have even died.

Karma explained this is why it’s important to educate the people. It’s a fine line to navigate between honoring the traditions of the past while improving conditions for the future, but there is room for both.

“There are many things they can preserve, they should preserve,” he said. “The smoke system they must change. That is the number one.”

Lessons learned

In Nepal, Karma explained, information is like a commodity. Not only is it not shared among neighbors, it’s not even passed down between family members.

When it comes to women, for example, they do not talk about health concerns with anyone. Not even each other.

Mothers do not share with daughters. Sisters do not share with sisters. The women keep everything – including questions or experiences about sexuality, pregnancy or menstruation – to themselves.

So, it was one of the group’s goals on their recent trip to host women’s group discussions. In six villages along the journey, they were able to share some advice and techniques specific to women’s health.

But, what might have been even more important was that they showed them how to talk to each other.

“The more they can communicate with each other, the more they can learn,” Deb Swanson, owner of Dancing Willow Herbs, who was also on the trek, said.

As a clinical herbalist, Swanson was a wealth of knowledge for the people she met in Nepal. She brought herbs, teas and recipes to share. She also tried to share some of her experiences, so they could learn about how to help themselves.

The region is rich with local plant life and herbs, Swanson explained, but there is no local healer, no apothecary and no sharing of information.

People do not keep journals or records to build upon previous knowledge. They learn by seeing what has always been done and continuing to do so.

It’s one of the obstacles Karma and Jyamu face – trying to get people within the community to share what they’ve learned.

“They don’t know how they can improve,” he added. “It’s always kept the same.”

What Karma and Jyamu are trying to do is show the people of Nepal that there is another way – and, it turns out, their message has started to spread.

Karma received a letter from a village to the north of Chyamtang, just south of the Tibetan border, called Ridak. It’s far more primitive than any other village they’ve visited.

Most of the people in Ridak are not able to read or write, so it was a challenge to communicate why they needed the foundation’s help. They did not know how to ask for a school, a library, hot lunch program or eyeglasses.

They simply wrote, “We want like Chyamtang.”

That’s exactly what Karma and Jyamu hope to give them when they return next year.