Interview by Joanna Feldheim/Edited by DeMane Davis/Photographs by Jami Saunders
“I think anyone that has been to Nepal can attest to the fact that this country is special in a way that is undeniable.”
In 2010, Jami Saunders spent two weeks volunteering at an orphanage in Kathmandu. The professional photographer made a life-changing trip. Every day of her two weeks there she found herself touched by the forty-nine children. She noted that their lack of access to quality education, in particular seemed to be most pressing.
Upon arriving back in NYC, she and her partner Andrew Raible decided to launch a non-profit. The mission of “Kids of Kathmandu” is to provide better education for the children in Nepal. I had the unique opportunity to meet with Jami and chat about this blooming non-profit while simultaneously growing her photography career.
Q: I am fascinated by the way people follow through on a spark of an idea...a notion. What motivated you turn this thought into a reality?
A: It was a no brainer. Just look at the faces of the children at our original orphanage project. I think anyone that has been to Nepal can attest to the fact that this country is special in a way that is undeniable. The people are living in one of the poorest countries in the world, one that, lately, has been challenged more and more. Yet they’re welcoming, giving and happy. The idea of providing tools for a better opportunity to these children that were teaching me so much about priorities (especially coming from New York, where we all know how easy it is to get swept up in the idea of more, more, more) seemed like a no-brainer. It seemed like a privilege and a duty.
Q: What initial steps did you take to launch Kids of Kathmandu?
A: Our first fundraiser was “The Desk Project,” where we invited designers to build custom children’s desk for auction. With this money, we were able to move the children from public to private school. This was our test bed, we invited our friends and family without a long-term plan. We simply wanted to raise as much as we could and see what that money could buy us.
When we realized that people were passionate and jumping on board I started to think, “Ok, let’s make a real difference— starting now.”
“Nepalis remind you that more is not the secret.”
Q: How has Kids of Kathmandu grown?
A: We’re still committed to and supporting our initial forty-nine children, many whom have grown old enough to leave the orphanage and are working or going to university. We’ve also formed partnerships with other child and education-based projects. But the largest change happened for us this past April when the horrific earthquake struck Nepal killing over 8,000 people. We’ve now formed a partnership with AFN, Asian Friendship Network, on the ground in Nepal and “SHOP” architects here in New York and are rebuilding fifty schools with the permission of the ministry of education in four of the most devastated districts. We actually broke ground on our first nine schools just this week! So this is happening! In the end 10,000 children will have new schools and their villages will have clean water, solar power, libraries, and a safe and beautiful structure to learn in every day.
Q: Wow! That's unbelievable. How many times per year do you travel to Nepal?
A: I go once a year. I vet out our new projects, check on our existing projects, work on our brand of Nepali handmade cashmere children's line called Oja Moon and, most important, spend time with the kids who take lots of space in my heart.
“Ke Garne” is a popular phrase in Nepal which means, “what to do.” The airport is closed. No flights? “Ke Garne. Let’s go get momos and tea.”
Q: What is the tone of your trips and what are the traveling conditions like?
A: Honestly now it is like a second home. I even leave suitcases full of clothing at a hotel near the orphanage because they are like family. I make one phone call with my dates a few days ahead and arrangements are made. That being said, travel is difficult because it is not close! It takes about 24 hours to get there.
We also have staff on the ground and an office in Nepal now, so things have changed since the first trip, where I had no idea what to expect. The conditions are minimal. It’s not ideal for fussy travelers. For example, the last time I was there, you may have heard about the Turkish Airline plane that crash landed on the tarmac blocking everything. Luckily everyone was okay! But Nepal had no equipment large enough to move the downed airliner so we waited for equipment from India for four days. I was stuck there. Though I admit it’s a pretty special place to be “stuck.” If I hadn’t been scheduled to do a photo shoot for a wedding in Ireland a week later I would have embraced that travel detour completely!
You have to be flexible and understand that this country does not have the luxuries of the West. It breaks my heart at times. The Nepalis are dealt a lot of short sticks, and yet people manage and go on. “Ke Garne” is a popular phrase in Nepal which means, “What to do.” The airport is closed, no flights, Ke Garne. Let’s go get momos and tea.”
Even now they are coming off over five months of a blockade at the Indian border. Fuel shortages became a way of life making it difficult to impossible to drive for most people and cook. Just coming off of the earthquakes only months before, they were forced to adjust to an even more unstable life. This country knows how to roll with the punches, because they have no choice. And while I do hope they have an easier road in the very near future, this Ke Garne attitude is inspiring to me and those of us in the west who lose our minds when the Four Train runs local instead of express. Perspective.
Q: Can you share the events of a typical trip or a trip that really touched you?
A: Sure, gosh, all of them. But this sticks out from my first trip when I started to understand how much a difference one can make with very little. At the orphanage, we noticed that the older kids waited until the younger kids were done with dinner before they ate themselves. When we asked why they didn’t all eat together, they said it was
because the rice cooker wasn’t big enough to cook rice for everyone and there weren't enough plates. What?! So for a $100 trip to the kitchen supply store we could purchase items that would allow everyone to eat together like the family that they are? That was amazing to me. And not only because I learned how much difference you can make with so little, but because no one was complaining about it. The older kids who were, no question, very hungry coming home from school, simply waited patiently for the younger ones to finish and thought nothing about it. It’s inspiring to see how much change we can make with a little bit of money and some broad spectrum thinking.
Q: What are the logistics in providing supplies such as water, food, pencils, educators, etc?
A: We work with all local organizations and partners so this keeps the challenges as minimal as possible. Working locally is a must.
Q: There is lots of press on disaster relief and how funds aren’t going directly to the intended people. How do you manage the distribution of funding funneled to the right hands?
A: A significant amount of our time has been spent on building a team we trust. We have an incredible local staff in Nepal that we communicate with daily. My co-founder makes several trips per year to Nepal as he oversees much of the partnership development and structure there. We're quite proud to tell people that their money absolutely will go where it is meant to go.
Q: How much of your photography profession is linked to your cause? In other words, is there a relationship between your visual world and the growth to Kids of Kathmandu?
A: There really isn’t a direct relationship, though both are centered around children. Many of my photography clients however, have become great supporters of Kids of Kathmandu, which I'm incredibly touched by. They also share the stories of the kids in Nepal with their children, which i think enlightens everyone. We live not only in a wealthy country, but in one of the wealthiest cities within that country, New York City. I think many of my clients have been happy to participate in a way that not only benefits the kids in Nepal, but is also is an International learning experience for their own children.
Q: Do you have any mentors or inspirations?
A: I’m inspired by so many people every day, honestly. Speaking of those in Nepal, I’m inspired by so many…so many who hold such peace in their hearts and their faces. They open their doors, their homes, their lives to strangers in a trusting and giving way that is awe inspiring. You can see it. And you can feel it. And no question, it infiltrates your thinking, and then I pack it away, and bring it back with me to New York. I incorporate it into my life and share it with those around me. And I hope those around me are able to share it with those around them.
Q: What can our readers do to help out with your cause?
A: Over the next two years we will continue our mission to rebuild fifty schools which is already in progress. Funds are always important as we have about twenty different partners in place to provide solar, clean water, computers, teacher training, engineering and construction management. It’s really an impressive team if I can say so. We are funding one school at a time and currently nine schools are being built.
There are a number of ways people can get involved depending on how active they want to be from donating at our website or hosting a small cocktail party at their home to promote awareness and raise funds for friends to connecting their business or employer to Kids of Kathmandu
and participating in a fund matching program.
Additionally, all proceeds shopping from the gifts on ojamoon.com
will go directly to the Kids. The line is 100% cashmere, beautifully handmade at a women’s center in Nepal down the street from the orphanage. All proceeds go to our original orphanage.
We are also excited to announce that Priti is currently weaving forty-nine Sanctuary blankets for each of the Kids of Kathmandu. The blanket donation program launches in late Spring 2016 and will spread warmth and funds.
Jami is a professional portrait photographer. Her work has been seen in such publications as People Magazine, Parents Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Town and Country Magazine. www.jamisaunders.com
Kids of Kathmandu believes that healthy educated children are the key to a healthy educated world. Kids of Kathmandu is rebuilding fifty schools for 10,000 children who lost their educational facilities in the April 2015 earthquake. Through projects focused on education, nutrition, medicine, clean water, and clean energy, today and tomorrow’s generation will begin to affect positive change throughout Nepal.