Thursday, March 10, 2011

Quilts For Kids: Empowerment and Education in Kathmandu

James Hopkins is one of the sincerest and most humble individuals I have ever had the pleasure to meet. We have known each other for almost twenty years, since our years studying with the late Alaskan poet laureate John Haines. James is an interesting individual. After graduating from Duke University with a degree in French literature, he worked for 23 years as an investment broker in New York and Washington, DC. He retired in his early forties and six years ago relocated to Kathmandu where he studies Buddhism. Add to this the fact that he is an exquisite poet. But enough about James. I want to tell you about the good and righteous work he is doing.

Living in Asia he was troubled by the quality of life and limited possibilities of the people living around him. He discussed this with a local lama and asked how he might help and benefit his new neighbors. The lama gave him a simple answer. Go out and whoever appears in front of you help that person with whatever skills you have.

Wandering the street of Kathmandu James discovered an Indian street beggar camp located in the city’s Boudhanath neighborhood. Its inhabitants come from Punjab and Rajasthan, on India’s western border with Pakistan, and from Bihar state, situated along Nepal’s southeastern border. Living in what we would call poverty and squalor, James found the camp’s Hindu women working together to produce amazingly beautiful quilts and he realized that, with the right guidance and support, these women had a commodity they might sell to benefit their families and their community. Created and operated by James since 2006, “Quilts for Kids” is a successful micro-finance project which empowers impoverished women while at the same time providing a safe and secure education for their children:

The quilts are hand-stitched from scrap materials either found or purchased at local shops. Each quilt is unique in design, size and shape yet, as James tells us, “every stitch is done by hand and every flaw is made with love.” It normally takes three or four women an average of ten days to complete a quilt. While they work the women talk and share stories and information that are important for the viability of the local community.

James pays the women approximately US$40 for each quilt made. This money comes from his own pocket, and from sponsors, mostly in the United States. These transactions teach the women how they can market their traditionally crafted quilts and give them a stronger sense of self worth in a city and culture where they are more often than not marginalized. James then sells the quilts for US$140. The money donated by sponsors, and the payment provided by James, funds the salaries for the women, and 100% of the profits from the sale of each quilt goes to provide a quality education for one of their children. It pays tuition for one year at the local Kumari School and provides for a school uniform and shoes, books, a book bag and other supplies. This keeps the children off Kathmandu’s mean streets and gives them a promising alternative to begging. Recently donations have made it possible to construct a “study house” in the community where the children can come in the evening and find a safe and quiet place where they can do their homework lessons.

These are kids who want to go to school and want to succeed. It is heartwarming to watch these women work on their quilts, smiles on their faces as they carry on with their traditional craft amid conditions of extremity, knowing that each stitch on a quilt makes it possible for their children to have an opportunity for a better life. James has a vision and he is making it real. It is as easy as that.

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