Friday, August 30, 2002

Idaho

Making her world of difference
Sandpoint woman brings home her will to help Nepal

Robin Heflin
Correspondent

photo
Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review
Jennifer and Pradeep Shrestha of Sandpoint sell handcrafts purchased from women's cooperatives in Nepal.

SANDPOINT _ Jennifer Shrestha's inability to ice skate turned into an economic benefit for women in Nepal.

After living in Nepal for five years, the 27-year-old returned home in July with a husband, a new business and the satisfaction of having made a difference in the lives of the women of Nepal.

As a child, Shrestha wanted to be a professional ice skater.

"The problem was, by the eighth grade, I still hadn't learned how to ice skate," she said with a laugh.

So she decided she wanted to work in an orphanage or go into the Peace Corps.

She did both.

While a student at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, she had the chance to work in an Indonesian orphanage for six months.

Following graduation from St. Olaf with a bachelor's degree in social work, she followed her other dream and joined the Peace Corps in 1998. She was all set to go to Haiti, but at the last minute, that trip was canceled and she was sent to Nepal.

There she worked on proje
cts that sought to improve women's lives. In male-dominated Nepal, few women work and most have little or no education, Shrestha said. Among her many Peace Corps projects was teaching women how to sew and make candles, giving them marketable skills so they could help support their children.

She volunteered at a school and helped 17 girls get scholarships that enabled them to attend.

In another project, she helped people obtain surgery to repair cleft palates.

"I did operation camps and took people to the cities to be operated on. One doctor came to the camp where I was working and did 55 people," Shrestha said.

The project was close to her heart.

"I was born with a cleft lip and palate," she said. "I was (first) operated on at two weeks old. These people ranged from babies to 45, 50 years old. They got a whole new face. I loved working at this."

Shrestha met her husband, Pradeep Shrestha, through his second cousin, who was her Nepalese teacher. Pradeep and his cousin were traveling home to their village by bus, which stopped in the village where Shrestha was posted. With time on their hands before they caught the next bus, they stopped to see her.

"Pradeep was just so polite," Shrestha recalled. Nepal is a caste society, but Pradeep was courteous to everyone, even to those of a lower caste. "It gave me the idea that inside and out he was a nice guy."

They married in December 2000, coming to the United States for a month for the wedding before returning to Nepal.

When her two-year term with the Peace Corps expired, Shrestha found a job with World Vision, managing child sponsorships. When she could not get a work permit because she was a U.S. citizen working in a Nepalese job and not an expatriate position, she lost her job. Unable to find another one, she returned home to Sandpoint with Pradeep.

The couple formed the Hands of Nepal, featuring handicrafts made by Nepalese women to be sold at arts and crafts shows and on their Web site, www.handsofnepal.com. They did their first show at the Downtown Street Fair a mere two weeks after arriving in the United States. Their next event is the Octoberfest celebration in Sandpoint Oct. 5-6.

"We started this originally so we could work together," Shrestha said. "We also wanted something that would keep us connected to Nepal and that would help the women of Nepal." Besides working to get their business off the ground, Shrestha is employed as a job consultant with Job Service, while Pradeep works with her father, an electrician.

Shrestha and her husband buy their goods from several small, relatively unknown women's cooperatives, each with a specialty. One knits woolen sweaters. Another makes paper by boiling the bark of the lokta tree until it's mush, then spreading it out on screens to dry. The Dhankuta Sisters co-op weaves cotton tablecloths, runners and pillows in rich hues.

The wages the women earn isn't much by Western standards, but it has a tremendous impact. For instance, the women of the Tharu traders, a tablecloth-making co-op, earn 1,500 to 2,000 rupees a month -- the equivalent of about $20 to $25 dollars.

With the money they earn in co-ops, women feed, clothe and educate their families.

"Some families who don't have money feed the boys but don't feed the girls. Or they buy good rice for the boys and not-so-good rice for the girls. Now they can buy food for the entire family or more of it," Shrestha said.

"The money makes all the difference," said Shrestha, who has met women from most of the co-ops she works with.

She hasn't met the women who make the sweaters, however, because civil war prevented her from traveling to see them. Civil war also resulted in the destruction of one co-op's sewing machines. Shrestha said she wants to get the machines replaced when it's safe and provide hand looms for another co-op.

People who buy sweaters and tablecloths may not see the difference it makes in Nepalese women's lives, but Shrestha does.

"Part of our profit is going back (to the women of Nepal)," she said. "We can see where it's going, what it's doing."


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