By Claire Harlin
In 2004, a woman from Laguna was hiking in Nepal and discovered there were thousands of impoverished children working in the fields there, many displaced by traffickers or orphaned due to the Maoist insurrection of the 1990s. Soon after, that woman sold everything she owned to move to Nepal permanently to start a shelter for these kids.
A local resident, Laura Parker, met this fellow Californian, Christine Casey, while on vacation in Nepal. Casey was just about to open the shelter on her own, and Parker was instantly attached to her cause and offered to help. Within the following years, Parker shared Casey’s story with friends in Del Mar and, one by one, a handful of locals visited the shelter, called Chhahari, and fell in love with the some 20 kids living there. Together, they’ve contributed in various ways on visits to Chhahari, and they’ve formed a board to help protect and raise money for it.
“For me it’s like a love affair,” said local resident Ingrid Hoffmeister, who has served as a volunteer teacher there and helped start a book sale to raise money for the shelter. She has also published a book about Chhahari, which means “shelter” in Nepalese.
“It’s like when you are there, something has called you; you don’t call it,” she said. “It’s a blessing to be there.”
Local nurse Carol Kerridge, who heard about the shelter through Hoffmeister, joined the board after visiting the shelter in 2009. She also helps run the book sales, which take place several times a year at Stratford Court Cafe in Del Mar.
Kerridge said she was greatly impacted by the kind attitudes of the children.
“They were all sitting around a low table on the floor doing homework,” she said. “The lights got dim and they were barely able to see their homework because they only have two hours of electricity a day … They were such joyful, sweet kids.”
Both women plan to visit Nepal in October — Kerridge to perform healthcare outreach and Hoffmeister to bring video cameras for a student-driven documentary project. Hoffmeister hopes to bring the video footage back to the United States to be professionally edited.
Enter local doctor David Monahan and his wife, Sally. The two met Kerridge and Hoffmeister at one of the book sales at Stratford Court Cafe and they not only offered a generous donation, but asked if they could bring a medical team to Nepal. The Monahans ended up joining the ladies on their next trip and offering three days of intense clinics, Kerridge said. The groups did physical examinations on 205 people, from kids to factory workers. Monahan also ended up returning the following year to offer medical exams.
Also in the effort is Hoffmeister’s husband, Jerry, who has extensive experience running boards. He has served as chair of the San Diego Foundation, and is also serving on the Chhahari board.
“It was one person [Casey] doing everything, and we started the board because we were afraid of what would happen to the shelter if something happened to her,” said Hoffmeister. “We needed a stronger infrastructure, and we knew we needed to have a strong underpinning.”
The shelter operated on $13,000 annually when it first opened, but the budget has increased to more than $28,000 annually. This is due to the instability of the government there, rising rent and an increased need for food.
“The kids are growing up and getting older and hungrier,” Kerridge said.
The locals who have dedicated so much of their time and energy to Chhahari want to widen the circle of support they have created to help garner more resources.
“The more people know about us, the better,” Hoffmeister said. “There are so many charities out there that it’s hard to raise money, and once you’ve been there, you’re hooked. It’s hard to understand the emotional pull until you’ve been.”
Hoffmeister continued, jokingly, “We think Del Mar should adopt this charity, adopt the project as a Del Mar project that’s out of the country.”
Hoffmeister said the experience of going to Nepal has changed her entire perspective on life.
“You go there and come back and you are not the same. You get an extremely healthy touch of reality,” she said. “The kids’ needs are very basic and minimal. They don’t want toys. What they love is people showing up and showing an interest.”
For more information, visit www.chhahari.org.