Finding Contentment in Giving Back

Linda Edgecombe combines her work as a work-life balance personal accountability expert with a sense of humor. She speaks to groups of professionals about gaining happiness and contentment in life and has published several books. Through story telling interlaced with humor, Linda inspires her audiences to seek a more balanced, content lifestyle. For her own sake, Linda has found contentment by helping the women of Nepal.

Linda is a popular speaker at health care conferences. As a presenter, she finds that audiences are more receptive to what she has to say when she interjects humor in her stories. Her message is meant to inspire her listeners to connect with others while she “ruffles some feathers” in an attempt to get them to try something different. About 10 years ago, she had an opportunity to follow her own advice.

One of her steadfast beliefs is that the number one factor that increases a person’s sense of contentment is doing something for someone who can never repay your gift. Linda’s opportunity to do this came through her friend, Michelle Bonneau. Michelle is the founder of the Intercultural Women’s Educational Network (IWEN) and works in Nepal.

In Nepal, as in many developing countries, young girls are sold into bonded labor. It’s a practice that is fueled by poverty. In very poor countries, girls as young as age 7 are pressured to earn money. A family may be offered $35 for their daughter if she goes off to work on a farm. The family may be told that she will learn English and receive some schooling, but this rarely happens. The majority of these young girls are actually sold into bonded labor. They are treated horribly. Some never return home. IWEN’s mission is to counteract these practices through education.

Linda and Michelle spent weeks sitting at Michelle’s coffee table, structuring IWEN’s organization and registering it as a charitable entity. That was in 2005. Since then, IWEN has provided educational scholarships for young girls and women in rural Nepal and the Kathmandu Valley. IWEN also offers vocational training to immigrant women in the Okanagan Valley.

“When you live a great life as we do in North America, it comes with responsibility,” Linda says. “That responsibility is to give back somehow. I chose Nepal.”

The Scarf Lady
Early on, Michelle approached Linda, asking her if she would sell scarves to raise funds. Linda began taking these scarves to events and sold them quickly. Some of the money was used to buy young girls out of their labor contracts and send them to school. Some of it was used to buy goats or chickens to help families become self-sufficient.

So Linda became the “scarf lady.” Everywhere she went to speak, she sold scarves. Then, a few years ago, she asked some of the mothers in Nepal to make the scarves. Eventually IWEN volunteers built Unako House, a sewing facility that opened just a few months ago. (Unako means “hers” in Nepalese.) Engineering students volunteered to design its solar panels. The Nepalese women work on old-fashioned pedal sewing machines, purchased through fundraising efforts, because there is no electricity.

Crowded Classrooms
Linda and her husband, Kevin, visited Nepal together in 2010. The experience made a lasting impression on both of them. They saw unbelievably crowded classrooms with 80 to 90 children in each room. Linda believes that asking her husband to join her was one of the best decisions that she ever made. Kevin is a builder. He resolved then and there to help and began pulling in volunteers to enlarge the school.

Working with the Nepalese School Management authorities and local community, Linda and Kevin started Classrooms for a Cause to build much needed classroom space. Although Nepal’s educational curriculum is well developed, it is not effectively delivered in remote village schools because of a lack of educational materials and inadequate infrastructure and teacher training.

Linda and Kevin have rounded up groups of volunteers from across North America to accompany them on building trips to Nepal. They fund these efforts through their “Buy a Brick” campaign. Anyone who wishes to contribute can purchase a brick for $100. The bricks can be engraved with a name and are used to build walls in the school.

“It’s amazing what we can build in Nepal for $100,” Linda explains. “Money goes so much further there.”

In addition to building classrooms, IWEN just finished a vocational center. “I never imagined when I sold my first scarves, the change that even a small charity can bring about,” Linda says. “We have literally changed life in the Dang Region of Nepal.”

Since its humble beginnings around a coffee table, IWEN has grown to sponsor a number of programs. The Indentured Girls Program promotes empowerment through education. There is also the Sungava Institute for mentally challenged or learning disabled females. The institute provides basic literacy and life skills education and some marketable skills that enable these women to produce handicrafts and simple garments. A teacher training program has made progress in staffing rural schools with trained teachers. IWEN also offers literacy classes to the mothers of rescued illegally bonded girls. As their daughters became educated and gained confidence, their mothers realized the importance of education for themselves and asked if they could be educated as well. As soon as they learned to read and write, there was instant cultural change. Some of these women have started businesses, which is something that they would have never done because the society is patriarchal and women are marginalized. “Now these women look you in the eye,” Linda says. “It has completely shifted the culture, and it’s an amazing thing to see.”

Editor’s note: The earthquake that struck Nepal last April killed almost 9,000 people and flattened entire villages. The Nepalese people need help now more than ever. In the three weeks that followed the first earthquake, Kevin led a team that raised more than $82,000. He and his team of volunteers visited several of the affected villages and began rebuilding not only schools but homes as well.

For more information about volunteer opportunities and ways to help the people of Nepal, visit http://iwencanada.com/. To buy a scarf, visit www.IWENUNAKO.com. Bricks to support the Classrooms for a Cause Program are available at http://iwencanada.com/buyabrick.php

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