My journey with the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation began in 2004. I had been saving up for years to take the trip of a lifetime and the time had finally come. After looking at my options, I decided to go to the most exotic and faraway place I could think of: Tibet. I signed up for a group tour and before I knew I was on my way.
Tibet was everything I could have imagined and more. There were bleak plains surrounded by rugged snow-capped mountains and the bluest sky I had ever seen. I saw men and women wearing traditional garb as their day-to-day clothing, yaks covered in brightly-colored tassels pulling ancient wooden plows, the Potala Palace and other brightly-painted monasteries and stupas, and hundreds of prayer flags strung at the tops of mountain passes as high as 17,000 feet. But most of all I saw Tibetans struggling to maintain their traditional culture under an oppressive Chinese regime.
As luck would have it, Karma Tensum spoke about TCEF at my Rotary Club not long after I returned from my trip. That talk opened a door for me – I found a way to help Tibetan refugees struggling in exile to retain their incredible culture. I promptly signed up to sponsor a Tibetan refugee child at Kyitsel-Ling, the Tibetan school in Clement Town in northern India.
My sponsored student, Karma Sherap wrote me several letters and I received copies of his report card, which showed he was a very bright boy. I decided to visit him, not just to spend time with my sponsored “son,” but also to satisfy myself that TCEF was a legitimate charity and that it really did the work it claimed. It’s not that I had any real doubts, but I had heard of charities that turned out to be scams or that spend most of their donations on fundraising or high salaries instead of the work it claimed it was doing and I did not want to involve myself with one of those.
I was pleased to see that TCEF was everything it claimed to be. The school and its “hostel” (dormitory) were far from fancy but were adequate to the students’ needs. The students appeared to be happy and comfortable in their surroundings. The teachers and other staff were pleasant and kind. When I arrived, Karma Sherap was excused from his classes to spend the day with me. I took him shopping for clothes and soccer shoes. I could tell he came from a poor family because he had clearly never spent much (any?) time in a car before – he promptly got carsick!
I have sponsored several students over the years as one by one they left school for various reasons – two older students completed their studies and went out into the world and one student was accepted into a monastery, a high honor among Tibetans. I now sponsor Phurbu Lhamo, a sweet little girl who is at Kyitsel-ling hostel at Clement Town. She did not speak Tibetan or English when she arrived but has made enormous progress and now is getting excellent grades. I look forward to a long and fulfilling relationship with her.
My association with TCEF has not been limited to sponsoring students, however. When Karma announced that TCEF would be adding destitute Tibetan elders to its sponsorship program, I asked for and received the name of one of those elders. Her name is Dolma, and I have visited her in India several times. I could tell she had led a hard life – she looked to be at least 80, but her daughter-in-law told me she was about 65. She, her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren live together in a small hut with one bedroom. Dolma sleeps on a cot in a room that also serves as the living room, dining room, children’s playroom, and location of the family altar. The other four all share an ancient double bed in the single small bedroom. The only other room is a tiny smoky-stained kitchen, about the size of my bedroom closet, with fixtures that appeared to be from the 1940’s. There is no bathroom, only a one-seat outhouse about twenty feet from the front door. Other than my TCEF sponsorship money for Dolma, the family’s only income is from a tiny outdoor café that the daughter-in-law runs. They do not have a penny to spare.
In the fall of 2018 I was invited to join the Board of TCEF. My participation on the Board has only confirmed my belief in the virtue of TCEF’s work and the dedication of Karma and the other Board members in keeping it going. By helping educate children, helping destitute elders survive on at least a basic level, and by preserving Tibetan culture in exile while it is being destroyed in the Tibetan homeland, I firmly believe that my involvement with TCEF is one of the greatest legacies I will leave when I depart this earth, second only to my own children.