A few days ago I had the good fortune of doing a Q & A with Olga Murray. Soon before her retirement from practicing law in San Francisco she was trekking the Himalayan Mountains when she broke her leg. A local porter carried her for days, which significantly touched Murray, and then she was moved again by the countless children at the hospital with such terrible disabilities and bleak resources. So soon after her fall—in 1984, she started to work with children in Nepal. In 1990 she founded the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation. NYOF’s mission is to empower the youth of Nepal—and already their successes include freeing over five-thousand girls from bondage. But even after around two decades of service, Murray says she believes that there is still much work to be done. The eighty-four-year-old Californian volunteers full time to lead her causes forward, even living much of her time in Kathmandu, where she was when I interviewed her. Below is her insight:
When and why did you get into service work? Because I was approaching retirement, always had an interest in children, and wanted to do something to help them.
Before NYOF how did you picture retirement? I thought I would work as an advocate for a child in court or tutor at a community center, but I fell in love with the children of Nepal when I came trekking here in 1984, and decided that I would work with impoverished children here.
How did you start the nonprofit? NYOF developed organically, driven by the needs of children in Nepal. We started out by giving scholarships to orphans, but expanded to other programs when we encountered children in dire circumstances who really needed help.
How did you obtain support? At first, through friends. Later, we became more organized, wrote grant applications to foundations, and increased our donor base through publicity.
Is the work what you expected? Why or why not? The work has far exceeded my expectations both in scope and [in] the amount of satisfaction I get every day from knowing that we are providing a better life to thousands of Nepali children.
What were the needs you were originally filling? At first, we started by giving college scholarships, but eventually [we] increased our scholarship base to disabled children, those whose parents could not afford primary school, those who had no homes, and poor children in villages so that today we support thousands of youngsters in school, from kindergarten to medical school.
How have those needs evolved? They evolved from our observations about the needs of children in Nepal. When many children were dying or became stunted because of malnutrition, we began a nutritional rehabilitation home to restore them to health and educate their mothers about child care. [Today NYOF has restored the health of more than five thousand children and has educated thousands.] We now have ten such facilities all over the country. When we learned that little girls were being bonded away for fifty dollars a year for labor, we began a program to eradicate the practice, which is now on the verge of success. [Estimates are that around 1200 girls, which is twenty percent of the former total number, still need to be rescued from bondage.] When we discovered children who had no homes and no hope for an education, we established two homes for children—one for boys and one for girls.
What are your largest setbacks? Lack of funds. We could do so much more if we had more money.
What, if you can distinguish one, is your most touching experience in Nepal? My relationship with the children at our children’s homes is the most touching experience here. I see them come in as neglected, malnourished little waifs and leave to go to college as confident, happy young people ready to give back to society.
What is your typical work day like? I spend a good part of the day on the computer keeping in touch with donors and our office. In Nepal I also do this, but I also spend time with the children at our children’s homes and visit our projects.
Who are your idols and why them? The usual caste of characters—Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, The Dalai Lama, because they have found a way to encourage people to live in harmony together.
What are your future goals? To expand NYOF’s activities. So much needs to be done in Nepal, and we have a local staff and organization that is able, passionate about children, and could provide for their needs.
Need more information about NYOF? Read on here.
Photos are reproduced with permission from Gregg Tully of NYOF.