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Fanning the Flames of Optimism

By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent

Local Chris Casey and the brood of children in the shelter she established in Nepal.

In fall 2004, Laguna Beach resident Christine Casey, a retired banking executive, fulfilled a lifelong dream with a three-month trip to Nepal.  As her group walked through poor villages, she was appalled at the sight of sick, starving, neglected children begging in the streets. They had lice, open sores and distended stomachs from starvation.

“Seeing children lying in the street with villagers stepping over them as it they were garbage had a mind-altering effect,” said Casey.

Asking about these children, she heard one horrifying story after another. Their parents were either dead or too poor or sick to care for them. Their lives were often short and brutal. They commonly died from childhood diseases, were murdered for their organs, supported themselves as prostitutes, became drug addicts, were sold to Indian circuses as animal bait.

Casey discovered her new life purpose; she vowed to alter the lives of these throwaway children. She returned home and downsized her life, embracing an ascetic lifestyle: no car, a one-room living space. The simplicity helps her to focus on her work for the home she founded in Kathmandu in 2007. She named it Chhahari, which means “shelter” in Nepalese. It is home to 23 children, ages 5 to 15, with two toddler siblings of current Chhahari children due to join the family soon.

The loving, family-like atmosphere at Chhahari is overseen by a Nepalese board member who keeps a watchful eye on the daily activities conducted by the caretakers, a husband and wife whose two sons are part of the mix. Chhahari’s children receive balanced meals, medical care, schooling, tutoring six days a week, and their own beds in a calm, clean, caring environment. Extracurricular activities include music, scouts, crafts, photography, visits to cultural sites, movies, lunch outings, and celebrations of all Hindu and Buddhist festival days.

Nepal is a politically volatile country with no social welfare programs. Its governmental power-struggles leave the nation’s 27 million citizens with no safety net.

“With a stable home for 23 or so children, we aim to begin to change Nepal from within, using education as the key,” noted Casey.

Casey put together two boards of directors, one in Nepal and one in Southern California, to help keep Chhahari lean and focused on the children. Her banker’s mentality means that every penny is accounted for. Any board member wishing to spend on an item not directly program-related must make their case to Chris.

Laguna Beach attorney Tom Davis, who helped Casey set up her nonprofit status, became a friend and a board member. “I was intrigued,” he said. “Chris has a way of eliminating any nonsense and getting right to the heart of her goal – and that is improving the lives of the children. Her motivation is pure, and her budget so basic – I had to get involved.”

Travelers to Nepal are welcome to work with the children, and many drop in to visit. A pair of British photographers, David Donavan-Brown and Georgina Child, came last March bearing a handful of digital cameras for a project. They asked the children to go out and shoot whatever looked good to their eye.

The fresh, unselfconscious results are the centerpiece of the organization’s first Orange County fundraiser, “Picturing Chhahari,” a photo exhibition set for Thursday, Sept. 27 from 6 to 9 p.m. at a private home in Corona del Mar. All are welcome to attend; the cost is $50 per person, with heavy hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer to be served. Call 949-306-3125 or 949-494-5388 to receive an invitation.

“When our children come of age,” added Casey, “their personal and educational resources and confidence will ripple outward to aid other Nepalese. Since they are educated, they’ll be able to   find jobs, start businesses, even go to college if we can find a way financially. Others may stay at Chhahari to help. At Chhahari we are fanning the flames of optimism and possibility.” www.chhahari.org

Laguna Beach resident Barbara McMurray often writes about local nonprofit initiatives.

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