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From Sierra to Himalaya, a school takes hold

August 13, 2014

Mammoth resident Wangdowa Sherpa (above) had long dreamed of building a new school in his home town of Phpre. His dream became a reality recently, with the help of some Eastern Sierra residents. Photo courtesy Mammoth Times

Halfway around the world in the high Himalayan mountains, a brand new school built by Eastern Sierra, Korean and Nepalese residents broke ground this spring, just three short years after Mammoth resident Wangdowa Sherpa first dreamed such a thing was possible in his home village.
“I was expecting it to happen eventually, but I did not expect it to happen so soon,” he said. “I am pleased and proud and honored and I thank all of the Eastern Sierran people who helped make this happen.”
The five-room, K-5 school, located in the small village of Phapre (pronounced “paw pray”), Nepal, still needs some interior work and some other finishing touches, but it is now serving about 70 of the village’s youngest children, Sherpa said.
The Eastern Sierra-to-Phapre connection might seem obscure, but in a kind of modern-day fairy tale, Sherpa, a former local chef and multi-lingual professional travel guide and landscaper, married Devils Postpile National Monument Superintendent Deanna Dulen in 2008, four years after the two met and fell in love during a trip he was guiding.
Sherpa and Dulen divide their time between the mountains of the Eastern Sierra and the mountains of the Himalaya, and have property and a home in both areas.
The idea for the school came during a guided trip that included Paphre and other locations nearby organized by Sherpa.
That trip included a group of 16 local residents, among them John Louth and Nancy Upham of Bishop, who would turn out to be the some of Wangdowa’s strongest supporters in the years to come. 
They along with another woman who would turn out to be another supporter, Kathy Duvall, signed up for a scenic and cultural tour that would take them close to the epic ramparts of Everest and the high Himalayan mountains; the “backbone of the world,” as that region is often called. But what they saw, and did, changed them more than scenery alone could account for.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” said Nancy Upham in an interview then. “There was so much more to it than we anticipated. Yes, there were a lot of needs, for healthcare, for education. Yes, that is true. But the people, they are the most generous, the most gracious people imaginable.”
The needs were clear, Sherpa said then.
“There are 75 students in a cold, unheated building with no desks,” he said. “The roof is iron. It’s very cold. The nearest clinic is days away. There are a lot of skin problems and a lot of women have problems in childbirth. But it’s too far to walk especially if you are sick, so mostly, these things are not attended to.”
“We went to Nepal to see the mountains,” Upham said this week. “But we went back to see the people.”
Phapre, like most small villages in Nepal far from an already inefficient and underfunded central government, struggled to educate its children, especially its youngest children (older children had a school in another village nearby).
Following that trip in 2011, the Uphams, who both recently retired from the Inyo National Forest after almost two decades, and Duvall and others helped create a local nonprofit, the Friends of Himalayan Sherpa People.
The group started small; its first fundraiser in Lee Vining in 2011 raised about $1,700.
Over time, as the group gained strength and formed a board of directors and achieved nonprofit status, their fund raising abilities increased. At the same time, across the Atlantic, a Korean Bhuddist monk, a friend of Sherpa’s cousin, also took interest in Paphre. The monk, Yong Bong Lama, began raising money in Korea, much like Sherpa and the nonprofit did locally.
Sherpa’s cousin, Ang Dorjee Sherpa, was another key player, donating land for the school and doing much of the coordination in Nepal.
The end result was enough money raised by this year – about $16,500 – to build the school this spring in four months.
The community members, Sherpa said, did most of the labor, hauling hundreds of thousands of pounds of stone and timber from the nearby mountains and forests to build the school.
Skilled stonemasons were paid for their work, but the huge amount of volunteer hours kept the cost of the school far under what a similar building would cost in the United States.
The school is not completed. It still needs interior work, and, said Upham, more teacher training for the young teenage girls who are teaching at the school.
“They are doing an amazing job, but they face some of the same challenges that teachers face here,” Upham said. “Tardiness, discipline issues. We would like to raise enough money to send some teachers to a training school in Katmandu.”
Sherpa has even bigger dreams. First, he wants to hire a skilled principal for the school. In Nepal, a college-educated principal might cost about $200 in U.S. dollars a month, or $2,400 a year.
Then, with some land he and a cousin own, he hopes to build a medical clinic for Paphre and finish his own, modern home in the village, giving volunteer teachers, nurses, doctors and other workers a modern place to stay when they come to the village.
“It’s hard to ask people to stay in a tent for several months,” he said. “Deanna and I want to complete our home so we have a place for those who visit us to stay.”

Friends of Himalayan Sherpa People will hold a slide show fundraiser called “An Evening in the Himalayas,” including Sherpa’s famous Nepalese cooking in Lee Vining on Friday, July 18, at the Community Center at 7 p.m.
The funds raised during the show will go toward more teacher training and finishing the interior of the school.
Visit or call 760-647-6118 for more details.


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