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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Dream Comes True in Ofunato

This past August when I volunteered with All Hands a dream showed up on the job board. I had to do dishes for 100 people to guarantee me a spot but it was worth it. I would finally be one of the people painting an inspirational mural. Miyazaki Kensuke, a well know Japanese artist and muralist wanted to create a beacon of hope for the people of Ofunato. He approached a local barber who had built his shop wear his house use to stand if he would be willing to have a mural cover the building he rebuilt on his own. He told the barber his shop was the perfect location because it was on a hill, in an area that was washed away on March 11 which meant it could seen from a distance and inspire the recovery works and the people during this difficult transition time.

When the other All Hands Volunteers and I arrived we were greeted by Ken in his coveralls splashed with years of paint and his infamous hand painted cap. He told us about his work in the United Kingdom, Kenya, United States, and Japan and this one was the closest to his heart, but would follow the same theme of working Hand in Hand with gifts being passed all around.

For the first day we would paint the first coat and then for 4 days (when it didn't rain) we keep adding layers, with Ken telling us where and what color. He would draw things in chalk and allow us to paint in the lines,with him finishing with the details. Ken had the true artist temperament because when we suggested colors, such as blue, he would say no I think green. We also weren't allowed to mix colors, until our last day when were running out of time. The final result is a phoenix on the roof dropping presents by parachutes to the waiting people of the world which includes 3 All Hands Volunteers and the barber and his family, who are standing on a beautiful arrangement of flowers.

Throughout the process over 20 people worked on this amazing project, with a special shout out to Kim#1 who was our team leader for the first 3 1/2 days, but had to go back to work and sadly did not get to see the finished project in person.

We all had a great time working together and even more fun painting each other. My favorites being when Andy UK was painted by the two grandchildren from his toes up to his knees, and when we turned Daiki's polo in to a $100 polo by painting on white stripes and a NIKE swoosh.

I am so happy to have by mural dream realized in such a meaningful way with such amazing people.

I almost forgot this project (and my picture) was talked about in at least 4 different Japanese newspapers.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

6 Months Of Project Tohoku - Taken from

The sprawling coastal city of Ofunato, with an ageing population of 40,000 and a third of its homes damaged or destroyed, had a clear need for additional volunteer labor to work alongside the city’s cleanup and recovery efforts. Following approval from the Mayor of Ofunato, we opened our doors on April 12th to eager volunteers from around the world. Six months on, with over 1,000 volunteers from 33 countries, with over 65,000 hours of volunteer service contributed to the local community efforts, we can reflect on the contribution we've made to the colossal efforts by the city and people of Ofunato.
In April, homes and businesses were filled with debris. As the debris has been removed, and treasured possessions recovered, skilled volunteers removed damaged floors, walls and ceilings of more than 125 homes and businesses, removing the burden of initial steps of the repair process from overburdened carpenters. Our volunteers delivered over 82,000 specially requested food items, supplementing evacuation centres' food supplies, by slotting in to established SDF delivery routes. Cash grants for building materials and professional labor have helped 36 families move back home. We've cleaned close to 100,000 salvaged photos and digitally retouched 300+ water-damaged photos returned precious memories to dozens of families. At the request of the city of Ofunato our volunteers cleared miles of clogged municipal drainage canals, avoiding flooding during winter. We are also rehabilitating one of the only publics parks that the city hasn’t repurposed for temporary housing, so local children can have a safe environment in which to play. The diversity of work speaks to the widespread need confronting communities up and down the North East coast of Japan.

Six Months of Project Tohoku from All Hands Volunteers on Vimeo.

In six months, the Japanese government has constructed nearly 50,000 temporary homes and cleared over 11 million tonnes of debris countrywide. According to the Mayor of Ofunato, every piece of debris in the city had been touched; either cleared, demolished, chopped up, or relocated for sorting. With local carpenters now finished constructing temporary housing, repairs and rebuilding have started in earnest, and more local businesses open each week.
Even with this impressive progress, full recovery is still years away. All Hands Volunteers is well positioned and committed to continued support of this region through this year and beyond. A smaller, more focused group of volunteers are present until 12th November, after which, we'll roll out a longer term recovery strategy, designed to meet the needs of affected communities and industry. We'll continue to rehabilitate public parks and sports fields, fund the restocking of school libraries, and support the rebuild of infrastructure.
A special thanks to the remarkable people of Ofunato, whose resilience, generosity, and kind words of encouragement provide ample motivation to work hard each day. Thank you also to all our supporters who have helped make our work possible.
To read more about All Hands Volunteers and the wonderful work going on around the world go to

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Library Remains Even Though I Do Not

Another hard day on my journey when I said see you later to all of my monk friends. My friend and fellow teacher, Ed, had set up a thank you presentation at the morning school. Not only did he say some kind words he helped the kids say thank you as well. Chimi Dorjee, one of the best English speakers from grade 3, gave the following speech after practicing if for the past week.

On behalf of Rigon Tashi Choeling Monastery, it is with great sadness that we'll see you go. You've been great teacher and will be greatly missed. Thank you for the teachings and thank you for being so nice. To us we have learned a lot from you and you have made an immense difference in our lives. We will miss you teacher, who had made English learning a pleasure. We wish you all the very best in life and we will be praying for you. So your life be flourished with great progress you'll be forever missed. Thank you!

As soon as he started the tears stated streaming down my face, which made a few of my young monks uncomfortable and a few others laugh at me. It got only worse when Pema "Snakey" gave me a piece of paper of a lotus flower he had drawn with the simple words thanks and nervously handed me a white Khata scarf, which is a sign of respect and gratitude. Then Tenzin, then Sherpa, then Sangye, then Gurma, then Yangor, then....until my vision became blurred by the sheer number of scarves around my neck and hands full of notes drawings, and flowers. Finally each student walked by said good bye and thank you Miss in English, and shook my hand since it isn't proper to hug a female. These goodbyes were harder than others because I will not to be able to communicate with 90 percent of the monks since they do not have emails, and I don't have a stable address for awhile. I can only hope when I return someday their smiles will be there to welcome me again. Thankfully I have thousands of pictures and a few hours of video to keep me company, until I see them next.

With my leaving of Nepal there is also a pause in my facilitation of the buying books and giving them to the monastery until I return home to the States. But before I left I was able to give them over 100 new and used books already, because of generous people that are reading about my journey. Special thanks to Tina Jensen, Dick Bolman, Shirley and Darren Olson, Kathy and Brian Scheppler, Sara Martinez, Jill Dumbauld, Linda Martinez, Abby Leitz and of course my parents for making me and the monks so happy. My favorite time with them is when they picked out a book during their free time and read or tried to read to me. A close second is when they saw the new books, couldn't believe they were for them and then were more surprised when they learned they were because people across the world knew and cared about them. I know they will treasure these books forever and I will as well because how happy they make them.
If you haven't had a chance to be apart of this library making project, you have three options:

1. Purchase English books yourself and mail them to the monastery.

2. Hold a book drive, collect some donations to cover the cost of shipping and mail the books to the monastery.

3. Still send money to my parents knowing it will not be used until I am in a place I can purchase English books and be able mail them. Might be able to before I return to the states but there is now guarantee.

If you would like to send books to the monastery please email me the number of books and when you expect to send them. In return I will send you the monastery's address and forward your email to the school's director so they have a heads up.

Together we can help these monks be fluent in an international language so they can communicate to a large percentage of the world.

Friday, October 7, 2011

My simple life in Nepal

I can hardly believe I have been gone from the monastery for 3 days. It seems so long ago already, which is weird since life almost stands still there in some sense. It was only night turning to day and the gentle changes that make realize another day has pasted in these bricks wall. I wake every morning around 6:30 to be at breakfast at 7, which always consists of fresh roti (bread/flour tortilla) with butter, honey or jam, a bowl of lentils and milk tea. Each day except Sunday, a gong hurries the monks to school to be ready for role at 9. Then they start with a morning prayer that is actually a song. Namka Sambo and his brother Namka Mingma are my favorite at this time because not only do they sing the loudest you can always see they joy in their faces.

The majority of monks know what an honor it is to be in school when over 70% of the children of Nepal are not. I have to say the youngest monks are the most fun to watch learn, but the older grades brought me the most joy since their classes are small and I can teach them one on one. Outside the classroom they are shy with their English and paying attention to what there peers are doing. I have offered many of them help outside of school, but I have to trap them to try even though once I have them in my clutches they are eager to learn.

Each monk is amazing in there own way and I wish I could share a few tibits about each, but for now I'll write about 10 of my 80 students.

-Chimi is a helpful, thoughtful monk and one of the best English speaker who tells me about his life in Nepal

-Tenzin Namgye "Ugyen" who talked my ear off when we walked down the hill to release the snake, but in class barely says a word. He not only loves hip-hop dancing as much as me, but actually quite good at it especially considering that he only sees it in movies here and there

-Gompa Sherpa who wears a watch but cannot tell the time and finds great amusement in our fake telephone game

-Karma Wozer who is the best built and silently uses his strength to help others, like when one of the other monks had a seizure and he carried him to bed

-Sangay Phuntsoki who hides his mouth and smile with his robe, and who draws landscapes in his notebook and then labels everything in English

-Pema Tenphel who is always running and us English speakers affectionally call Snakey because he sticks down his tongue whenever he is nervous

-Tuklu the "prince in a little chair" who is a reincarnated Lama who loves to dance, eat, and take pictures

-Choeing Dirmed the monk who is throughly enjoying his reading if Goosebumps and turned beat red when I made him dance with me because he didn't ask me three questions during our game

-Rabin my monkey monk who has a nose that is constantly running, is a champion at English, and always climbing, cartwheeling and flipping when we are outside

-Pema Galtsen the monastery shopkeeper, who has a heart of gold but will never admit it and who is making one of the biggest decisions of his life to make his vows as a monk or simply have a Buddhist life

-Pema Norbu who I constantly tried to make smile since he does it when he absolutely means it and loved to read books to me when none of his friends were around

For all the monks I wrote about and the ones I didn't get I can say they will hold a special place in my heart, I miss each one dearly for some of the same and different reasons and hope one day in the future see them all again and to find about what became of them in their monk hood, life and with their English.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Three New Monks (September 23, 2011)

Three new monks arrived at the monastery. They are in grade 1, and don't speak English (unless the abc's count in your book) or Tibetan. They only speak Nepali, so only 75% of the people here can talk to them. I have smiled at them often but have yet to meet or teach them.

The youngest one and I play peek-a-boo and I chase him around, I have tried to learn his name but he is to shy to tell anyone and the other teachers do not know it. For some reason I am drawn to this little monk and can help but wonder what he is feeling with his new life.

All the monks have a choice to be here or not, but it feels different to me for the young ones. Are they truly capable to make such a big decision about their life so early in life?

I personally would be scared out of my mind to not know anyone or to have a family to comfort me, especially to know I may never see them again, but maybe to them education and learning the dharma is worth it.

When a new monk arrives at the monastery, with a small ordination ceremony in front of the Mahaparinirvana statue. Then there head will shaved; dressed in a monk's yellow shirt and maroon robe, honored with the necessary Buddhist prayers and administered ten moral commandments, and given a monks name in replace of their birth name from the lama. Then there new life begins.

I am curious to see and hear what happens to these monks but especially the littlest one.

Location:Rigor Tashi Choeling Monestary, Pharping, Nepal

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

No Longer A Monk (written on September 18, 2011)

Today I am battling the question of right and wrong, and the impact we have on other people's future. What I am feeling is based on second hand knowledge, my own interactions, and what does forgiveness and punishment mean.

A couple of weeks before I came to the monastery, I was told that a gang of teenage monks held a young monk over the side of the side of a three story building. This was not the typical games boy play. This young monk was terrified as he dangled in their hands only by his maroon robe. Thankfully a teacher saw this and he was quickly brought back to safety and released.

Later the teacher asked the boys who treated the young monk to step forward and take their punishment. One by one they stepped forward with most of them showing instant regret, but one monk, the leader of the pack did not step forward. When he was called out, he should no shame and kept saying he was not sorry because it was only a joke. The gang of monks were all to apologize to the young monk personally, give a public apology at the school, and write a letter to their parents about what they did. Some did it willing, but the gang leader had to be pushed. When asked why his letter was blank to his parents, he said his mom was dead and his dad was jail. Finally he apologized to everyone and wrote a letter to his uncle, however none contained any sincerity.

When I met the gang leader, I had no clue of the ugliness he could do. To me he was a quiet student, with a shy smile, who kept to himself. As I got to know him I could see his need for love but that he had no clue on how to receive it. When I heard the story of what he had done, I couldn't believe my ears. I couldn't see any of the monks being this mean, not because they were monks but because of their demeanor in general.
I heard second hand that the gang leader would be expelled (kicked out of the monastery), but did not know when. Then one day while eating lunch I saw him dressed in jeans and a T-shirt walking to a car with his small group of friends. In my head I knew this must be goodbye but my heart did not want it to be so. I knew he needed to leave, it would be better for the monks here but I didn't like the how. I was sad not be informed of the when because I would have written him a letter with my contact info, wished him luck, and give him a hug that I know his body would turn from but that his heart needed. It felt like this young monk was swept under the table in secret without ever feeling welcome again, instead of a chance to be welcomed to visit the monastery when he need the comfort or help for his new struggles. However maybe before with out my knowledge the other monks had already said their goodbyes, it happens a lot in these foreign lands where one does not understand the customs or the languages that one assumes something and it is wrong. Now matter what my heart cried when the car drove off, and the monks waved. I knew then I would never see this person again, and my only hope is that he does not feel abandoned, knows he will be in my thoughts, and that the monks wished his actions did make it so that he had to be asked to leave.

Later that week one of my students and friend, that speaks decent English, told me that the student who left had written me a letter but he forgot it at his home that he visits every Saturday night and Sunday. Every night I wonder what the letter says, but more than that I hope it has his contact information so I can tell him how sad I am that I missed his departure and I will always be someone that cares.
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