Run DNC - Picture the scenes:
On our first day volunteering at the disabled children's charity - the Disabled NewLife Centre (DNC), supported by the Nepali Children's Trust - James attempts small talk with a nine-year-old boy whose feet were amputated after he fell into a fire: "So, do you walk to school?"
On our second day, James asked a boy born with no hands: "Do you want to play catch?"
On our third day, James says to a mentally-slow girl with short hair: "What a clever boy you are."
These (well, James) were just the start of some of the challenges we faced as we began our volunteering project in Kathmandu.
For the last month, our office has been a building site. A half-built home situated an hour outside Kathmandu, scattered with old plumbing parts, live electrics and bags of cement. Our clients were our toughest critics yet. 25 children aged between 5 and 18 from various mountain regions of Nepal. Our brief was to help them with their homework and generally keep them entertained between school and dinner time.
How were we meant to keep 25 Nepali children entertained? Heck, how would we keep one British kid entertained? What would we talk about with the same taxi driver for two hours every day for a month? How black would our lungs be by the end of the month after travelling on Kathmandu's ring road? How would we cope with kids who wash twice a week, almost all have nits, and half don't speak English? How on earth do you pronounce their names? How do we make sure we don't only pay attention to the gregarious, English-speaking kids with easy homework? How would we protect the poor dog from being hit with a stick? What would we do when we turn up and one kid has fallen off a wall and may well have been unable to get up for three hours, a boy is pulling another girl's hair, another boy has run off with the crutches of a girl with two broken legs, and another is holding a wheelchair containing a small girl rather menacingly at the top of a steep ramp?
After four months of selfishly doing what we wanted, when we wanted, we knew it would be a sharp bump back to reality to get closely involved with such a vulnerable set of tiddlywinks. But all those concerns faded quickly each time the kids shouted for 'James Sir' to see what the builders were doing on the roof, for 'Nicola Miss' to look at the newly-planted marigolds, for James Sir to blow out the candles on his birthday cake and start the next round of Pass the Parcel or for Nicola Miss to share their tiny breakfasts. The best bit of the last month has been spending time with a bunch of happy, brave, generous, bright and gorgeous young people, who taught us an awful lot (and not just about what the present perfect tense is). Plus having the opportunity to ask you to help us raise a lot of much, much, much-needed cash to help finish their home. Every penny sure does count out here.
But of course, there have been some tough moments. They did not like James Sir's beard one bit. They did not trust Nicola Miss' quadratic equations. They rather took a shine to our passports (a really worrying few minutes ensued...). The 10-year-old girl with one leg beat James Sir at a hopping race round the backyard. Their social studies homework was actually really hard. One girl cried on Nicola as she was being bullied at school and thought she was sent to the DNC because her parents didn't want her.
But the toughest bit is worrying about what happens a few years from now. Many come from mountain villages where they were born with a limb missing or cerebral palsy, suffered from polio resulting in amputation, or fell into an open fire as a baby. One child's mother was deaf so couldn't hear his screams as he lay in the flames. Their parents couldn't give them the attention they needed, as they had to be out on the farms from dawn till dusk earning a living. Plus neighbours and communities often disowned them, as disabilities are still seen by many Nepalis as a curse of God and a sign of bad karma. A couple of the chill'uns were even found abandoned on the streets of Kathmandu.
But these kids are actually the lucky ones. Living at the DNC, they have a (soon-to-be-finished) roof over their heads, three hearty meals a day, a good education at a school where everyone is used to disabled children being part of the class, access to vital medical support, a large 'family' around them, specially organised day trips out, and the odd chocolate treat from visitors or volunteers. Their House Mother, Shanti, has dedicated her life 24/7 to their needs for 11 years now (well she sometimes gets three hours off on a Friday afternoon...). Despite the brotherly teasing, the kids have always got each other's backs. Until 18, these are fantastic opportunities for a vulnerable set of kids.
But what then? And the truth is that we don't actually know for every kid. After passing their SLCs, they - as all Nepali teens - have the option of vocational education. But these youngsters are hardly likely to have money saved away for college or apprenticeships to get the one foot they do have on the job ladder. The world of work in Nepal is not ready for disabled employees yet. Many of the DNC residents have shared their ambitions with us about wanting to be teachers, nurses, engineers, business owners or doctors. It's wonderful to hear such aspirations from the kids. It's terrifying to think whether there's someone out there to give them a chance. Many of the kids will end up going back to the village they came from, and we hope the villagers will see through the disability and be amazed at, and proud of, what educated, polite, happy, friendly, helpful and funny young people they have become. We have some small plans to try to help with that post-DNC future, but our own resources will only stretch a small way. We certainly won't forget the DNC, the help the Nepali Children's Trust gives them, and the smile on every single child's face as we walked in and attempted to pronounce "Namaste" each day.
We hope you'll remember them every so often too. And how about you exchange that one- or two- week five star beach holiday next year for a trip to Kathmandu and say hi to the kids for us? You'll love it.
To find out more about the children's stories, visit the DNC website at: http://www.disablednewlifecenter.org
And the Nepali Children's Trust at: http://www.nepalichildrenstrust.com