Economics Students' NGO Helps Nepalese Schoolchildren after Quake

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015. Causingmore than7,600 deaths and property losses in the hundreds of millions of US dollars, the quake was the most powerful one to strike Nepal in over 80 years.

Located near the earthquake's epicenter, Nepal’s Gorkha District suffered especially heavy losses. The local population, long dependent on agriculture, had already experienced an exodus of young workers and was severely impacted by the natural disaster. Many families became less willing to permit their children to spend time and expense on schooling, preferring that their children become laborers as early as possible to help support the families economically. As a result, over one-third of schoolchildren in Gorkha were leftunable to continue their education.

When Tzu-Chun Lin and Wan-Ting Tsai,students of the Department of Economics,heard about the predicament faced by the schoolchildren of Gorkha, they founded the non-governmental organization, Calls Over Ridges,to improve the educational environment in Gorkha. Lin and Tsai's organization has provided substantial assistance since initiating its first funding support project in 2015. Besides helping over 100 students attend school, Calls Over Ridges set up libraries for two local schools andbuilt up a teaching assistance system that serves more than 1,000 students and teachers.

From tuition and fees to promotingeffective teaching methods, Calls Over Ridges provides practical support to the local schoolchildren. In a region where many youth become overseas migrant workers or young brides, the organization enables children to realize other possibilities for their lives by helping them pursue the "alternative" route of education.

Lin says, "The children of Gorkha can imagine only a narrow range of possibilities for the future. Many local people can name no more than five occupations."

Lin first traveled to Nepal as a short-term volunteer in 2009. He made his way backin early 2015 to help poor children in remote areas. However, he began to feel doubts about his volunteer trip after leaving.

Lin says, "International volunteers teach students English, Chinese, and simple handicrafts. Yet, after we leave, the children are unable to continue learning Chinese and English, and they lack materials for making handicrafts. Is it possible for an international volunteer service like this one to improve the lives of the children in a real way?"

When Lin expressed such doubts during an experience-sharing meeting after his return to Taiwan, he found a like-minded partner in his classmate, Tsai.

The pair adopted the name Calls Over Ridges and succeeded in raising funds from 350 students at 44 universities. Circumventing Nepalese government agencies, which take a cut at each level, Lin and Tsai delivered the funds directly to school principals and community leaders in Gorkha. That year, they helped 40 students affected by the earthquake to continue their schooling.

Putting their Department of Economics lessons into practice, Lin and Tsai not only provided financial aid for the students, they also set their volunteers to work conducting needs exploration surveys to ensure that their funding and resources were put to the best use. The volunteers also surveyed over a thousand students to better understand the factors impacting learning outcomes.

Lin and Tsai say the crucial point of needs exploration is to gain an understanding of the local circumstances rather than simply rush to "solve" a problem based on an initial impression.

During the past three years, Calls Over Ridges has worked closely with the community. Gorkha's dropout rate has fallen from 42% to just 2%, while the enrollment rate from elementary school through high school has climbed from 10% to over 90%. Students at one elementary school with an enrollment of 200 students now turn in up to 300 book reports each week. Moreover, while parents' day was once a deserted affair, the parents of 90% of the students attended the eventlast semester.

Lin and Tsai have also set up an education seed project for the schoolchildren of Gorkha based on continued needs exploration. The project aims to improve the area's learning environment by working in four main directions: raising educational funds, establishing learning resources, encouraging parental involvement, and enhancing learning motivation.

Calls Over Ridges: A Chronicle of Events

2009: Tzu-Chun Lin visits Nepal as a volunteer for the first time during his second year of high school. He has a pleasant and fulfilling experience while there, but after returning to Taiwan can't help but wonder about the real effect international volunteers have on the local people.

February 2015: Lin and Wan-Ting Tsai exchange views following a volunteer activity. Both believe short-term international volunteers can achieve only limited results and that resources must be used more effectively.

April 2015: The earthquake strikes Nepal. Lin and Tsai decide to found Calls Over Ridges and work to collect donations from university students with the goal of helping the impoverished schoolchildren of Gorkha who have beenseriously impacted by the earthquake.

2016: The NGO commences; it needs exploration work to gain a deeper understanding of the educational environment in Gorkha. In addition, the organization initiates its Project Aurorato appeal for volunteers and book donations. By this time, Calls Over Ridges has helped over 200 local children continue their schooling.

2017: Lin and Tsai begin promoting an education seed project that aims to enhance the educational conditions of the schoolchildren of Gorkha. The project sets out to build a local learning ecology based on needs exploration results so as to make improvements in four main areas: raising educational funds, establishing learning resources, encouraging parental involvement, and enhancing learning motivation.

February 2018: The education seed project comes to an end, having raised NT$1.2 million. During the coming three years, the funds will be dedicated to helping three elementary schools and high schools near the location of the earthquake's epicenter, thereby enabling 900 students to continue their studies and improving the area's educational environment.

Q&A with Tzu-Chun Lin and Wan-Ting Tsai

Calls Over Ridges' service project goes deeper than most of the international volunteer programs we see in Taiwan. What was the motivation for starting it?

Lin: Just as in the program I participated in nine years ago, the schedules of most volunteer programs tend to include foreign languages, art, and hygiene. The volunteers teach with passion and complete their service within the timeframe of the program. Still, after we leave, the local children have no one with whom to practice a foreign language, and they will certainly forget the vocabulary and grammar they had learned. Lacking art supplies, they can only look, with longing in their hearts, at the creations they made during the volunteer program. The hygiene concepts we teach are unable to genuinely change the habits of the poor children within a short time.

Tsai: Indeed. As I have previously participated in a service program with a community association, I share the same doubts regarding short-term service. This is probably due to my education at the Department of Economics. We want to ensure that committed resources produce results effectively rather than be wasted on repeated short-term volunteer trips that end without having achieved any lasting improvements in local conditions.

Having performed deep service up to this point, have your impressions and goals changed?

Lin: I often say that, in Gorkha, the Koreans plant coffee, the Chinese plant tea, and we Taiwanese have come to plant education. My main reason for staying committed is the same as it was at the beginning: I want to prove that Taiwanese are also capable of performing deep, long-term service and making true improvements to the local environment,that we don't only let volunteers come in rotation just to gain experience for themselves.

I used to imagine that service projects are about feeling, but my experience has taught me to be more rational. This is because real public service projects are actually more complex than business projects. We always discover new problems and thus must strive to establish new approaches. Business models, on the other hand, are simpler and easier to replicate.

Tsai: The greatest change is probably that I discovered I have truly started to have the attitude and expectations of learning as well as to join the local people in gaining understandings of different aspects and needs of their society. As to impressions about service work, many international volunteers say they have gained more than they have given. Frankly, I think this type of impression implies that you still believe you have, on balance, given, and that you occupy a higher status or possess greater prosperity. For my part, I feel I have continued to grow through service.