dZi Foundation is helping build and rebuild Nepal after last spring’s earthquakes | VailDaily.com

dZi Foundation is helping build and rebuild Nepal after last spring’s earthquakes

The dZi Foundation was launched in 1998 when Jim Nowak and some friends were in Nepal and begain raising support for a failing girls school. From those 14 girls, the dZi Foundation now works with more than 29,000 people in Nepal's isolated Khotang District.
Matt Glerum|Special to the Daily |

About the Nepal earthquakes

Nearly 9,000 lives lost

Over 650,000 homes destroyed

Nearly 1 million children without safe classrooms as monsoon rains began, and winter is now upon them.

The dZi Foundation

After the earthquake, dZi Foundation provided temporary shelter to nearly 12,000 people so that 3,000 students could safely return to school. They hosted 60 meetings with 2,502 community members to assess damage and plan for the future.

The goals

To build safer, stronger communities in Nepal, we will:

Rebuild 31 severely damaged schools to provide seismically-safe learning spaces for 2,100 students for generations to come

Raise incomes for 3,700 farming families by introducing new agricultural techniques and cash crops

Improve health by repairing water systems, sanitary toilets and increasing nutrition

To help

To donate in the U.S.

By credit card: www.dZi.org

By check: dZi Foundation, PO Box 632, Ridgway, CO 81432

970-626-9765

EDWARDS — dZi (pronounced Zee) is an ancient Tibetan bead. It’s given to bestow health and wealth on your friends.

“That’s what we try to do,” said Jim Nowak, founder and president of the dZi Foundation. “They’re highly valued throughout the Himalayan region.”

Double disasters

Disasters tend to run together in people’s minds.

The first earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, 7.3 on the Richter scale. The second, also 7.3 Richter scale, hit May 12.

More than 8,000 people died and tens of thousands were homeless, just as the monsoon season was bearing down on them. The brutal Himalayan winter is now upon them.

So are the aftershocks, more than 300 of them so far.

“A text came through on May 12 when that a second earthquake hit. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around it. I thought and hoped it might be a repost of an earlier text,” Nowak said.

The first quake was 130 miles from the Khotang District, the dZi Foundation’s project area. It shook everything.

The second was 50 miles away, and knocked everything down … almost.

About the only things left standing in the community were the schools dZi Foundation built.

Nowak was getting a cup of coffee, about 5 a.m., and about to walk to the office to start his day when the first text message rolled in.

“It finally happened!”

“How bad is it?” Nowak replied. “How is the staff? How is everyone?”

“We’re OK. We’re checking on the rest of the staff.”

They had about 20 people on staff at that time. Ben Ayres, their in-country director, saw his Kathmandu home destroyed. A half dozen staffers camped in his yard.

The rest of the dZi Foundation staff lives and works in the Khotang District, one of the poorest areas in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Think globally, act locally

Days after the quakes, the dZi Foundation was invited to be part of a benefit at the Edwards Interfaith Chapel. The good people of this valley gave the dZi Foundation $22,000 that night. The Edwards Interfaith Chapel was the largest contributor at $5,000, plus they hosted the event.

“People are passionate about Nepal in the Vail Valley. So many people have been to Nepal or want to go to Nepal,” Nowak said.

The dZi Foundation helped move 3,400 heavy tarps from India into the Khotang District, each one carried on people’s backs or on mule trains, because there’s no other way to get things there. Their projects are a three-day walk from the nearest road.

You read that right. Three days from a road.

With those 3,400 tarps, they gave shelter to 12,000 people with the monsoon bearing down on them.

“Everyone wants to send their high-end gear. That’s not really what they need,” Nowak said.

Here’s why: Those Nepali people are used to going to the high pasture with their animals every year. They build rock walls and cover the walks with a tarp and a ridge pole in the middle. If it rains the water drains through the walls. Inside they build a fire for warmth. Build a fire in your backpack tent and it catches fire.

The Khotang people are nothing if not dedicated to education.

When the earthquakes hit, the two dozen dZi Foundation staffers met with 2,500 people who all said about the same thing, “Do what you’re doing now, plus help us rebuild our schools.”

Together they built 41 temporary learning centers, a bamboo structure with tin roofing carried in from India. They put 2,500 kids back in school in a matter of weeks.

“They identified they wanted to get sweat equity into this. They were intent to pull their community back together,” Nowak said.

Along the way they grabbed as much roofing tin as they could. As the temporary schools are replaced with permanent structures, that roofing tin goes on the homes they’re rebuilding and repairing.

Beyond that, the dZi Foundation broke ground on nine schools this year. They’re building nine next year and 13 the year after.

And that, Vail Valley, is where your money went.

Stand and deliver

“While you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, there’s an emotional connection to want to jump on a plane,” Nowak said.

Hundreds did, jetting into Kathmandu to help. Their hearts were in the right place, Nowak said, but they weren’t.

“We’re large enough now that everyone has to play their position,” Nowak said.

They’re the only organization that works in this area of Nepal’s middle hills. They’re between 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation.

As the crow flies, it’s a 45-minute helicopter ride to the east.

“No one else is working in that area. Other areas see aid organizations tripping over each other trying to help,” Nowak said.

The crisis caravan has moved on, Nowak said. Now the real work starts. They’re mobilizing communities to dig foundations for schools.

There’s nothing that remotely resembles a diesel engine or a backhoe. Everything is done by hand.

They moved 385,000 pounds for their projects, again, all on mules or people’s backs.

“It’s truly sustainable because the local community worked the equivalent of 31,500 days of labor,” Nowak said.

Those are eight hour days.

Most people in this area are ethnic Rai, the people who walk up to Everest and carry loads for the trekkers. That’s the only way they earn money.

Growing from 14 to 29,000

About five years ago, the dZi Foundation decided their schools and community centers would the last buildings standing when the earthquakes hit. Not if earthquakes hit, but when.

The 12 schools were largely undamaged in Nepal’s two quakes.

Nowak started the dZi Foundation when he was living in the Vail Valley. He and some others were going to climb a 23,500 foot mountain, and along the way they found about a small girls home that was financially failing. So they started raising some money. They brought some stability to the home with 14 girls.

The people who had been running that girls home said Nowak and his friends did such a good, they turned it all over to him.

That was 17 years ago. Those girls are all graduated school, and are married and working.

The dZi Foundation now works with more than 29,000 people.

“These are very resilient people and they’ve been living like this a long time,” Nowak said. “We feel it’s the most effective.”

The first thing the dZi Foundation builds is infrastructure: Clean water, agriculture and schools — things like that. They often have enough food for nine months, and try to survive the other three. Some food diversity helped address that.

“We don’t just parachute in and say, ‘This is what you need,’ and leave,” Nowak said.

They’ve been working in those communities for the better part of two decades and have built long-term relationships. It takes a long time to make an old friend.

“I didn’t know we were practicing to get to where we are now, to deliver this to these people,” Nowak said.