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Classrooms in the clouds

A young man's dream brings a school to a mountain village

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PEACE THROUGH EDUCATION :  Santa Margarita college student Danny Chaffin (kneeling) spearheaded a school-building project for boys and girls in a remote village in the mountains of Nepal. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAN SPRAGUE-CHAFFIN
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF JAN SPRAGUE-CHAFFIN
  • PEACE THROUGH EDUCATION : Santa Margarita college student Danny Chaffin (kneeling) spearheaded a school-building project for boys and girls in a remote village in the mountains of Nepal.
While education in SLO County flinches under each swing of the budgetary ax, a Santa Margarita college student is focusing on building schools for children in a much poorer country.

With the support of friends and family, 22-year-old Danny Chaffin has formed a nonprofit organization, raised funds, and helped inspire an entire village to hand-build a new school in a remote Himalayan community in Nepal, stone by stone. Due for a grand opening this summer, the school will change the lives of dozens of girls and boys eager to learn.

It’s a story that seems right out of the pages of a bestseller—in fact, Greg Mortenson’s books about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, provided a blueprint for the effort in Nepal.

“Each step of the way, we asked ourselves, ‘What would Greg [Mortenson] do?’” said Jan Sprague-Chaffin, Danny’s mother. An elementary school teacher, she became deeply involved with her son’s dream of building a school in Nepal, along with his father, Don Chaffin.

Their journey began when Danny, then 19, volunteered to teach in an orphanage in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. He fell in love with the kind, warmhearted people of Nepal, especially the children, and vowed to continue to help them.

His connection with a family of renowned Nepali artists flourished, and soon young Karma Thupten visited the Chaffins in Santa Margarita and exhibited his spiritual, Buddha-inspired paintings in San Luis Obispo (see “Where the vengeful, enlightened and incarnated play,” New Times, May 15, 2008).

Meanwhile, Danny enrolled at Naropa College in Colorado to major in peace studies, and decided to start changing the world through education, one school at a time. He formed a nonprofit called Humanitarian Acts in Nepal Developing Schools, known as HANDS in Nepal, and asked his friends in Nepal to pick out a village in need of a new school.

A successful fundraiser in Santa Margarita raised several thousand dollars, and other donations poured in. Danny took his mother to see the chosen school site, a bone-crunching bus ride and grueling two-day hike through steep mountains from Kathmandu. Last month he met up with his father, a craftsman carpenter, who traveled to Nepal to oversee the school construction project in the remote village.

- STONES INTO SCHOOLS:  A free slide show and talk about building a school in Nepal will be presented at the Porch in Santa Margarita on Saturday, May 22, at 6 p.m. For more information, call 459-4010. - Tax-deductible donations for books and teachers’ salaries can be sent to HANDS in Nepal, P.O. Box 738, Santa Margarita, CA 93453. - You can read Danny Chaffin’s account of his experiences at handsinnepal.blogspot.com. -
  • STONES INTO SCHOOLS: A free slide show and talk about building a school in Nepal will be presented at the Porch in Santa Margarita on Saturday, May 22, at 6 p.m. For more information, call 459-4010. Tax-deductible donations for books and teachers’ salaries can be sent to HANDS in Nepal, P.O. Box 738, Santa Margarita, CA 93453. You can read Danny Chaffin’s account of his experiences at handsinnepal.blogspot.com.
“For less than the cost of a building permit in San Luis Obispo County, we built a school in Nepal!” Don, his father, told New Times shortly after his return to Santa Margarita.

The villagers had already created a terraced area in the steep hillsides for the school, and each family provided someone to help with the stone-and-mud construction.

“It was so thrilling. We were almost in tears to see how well the villagers had organized themselves. They set up a carpenter shop to mill logs from the forest into the door and window frames, using chisels and hatchets. The women carried the rocks from the fields. The boys brought the mud. The men built the walls. They didn’t need my help—they were already doing it,” Don said.

The new school has four classrooms, each with a stunning view of snowy Himalayan peaks and a rushing river in the gorge below. Separate latrines for girls and boys have been provided for the 80 students, and two teachers from the village are ready to start work.

“It just made our hearts burst with happiness to see this actually happening,” he added.

Danny’s original idea was to dedicate the new school to his late brother Sean, who died in an accident on Bishop Peak a few years ago.

“But slowly, that became less important. We realized it’s not about us. It’s their school. We’re just providing the opportunity to achieve their dream,” Jan said.

She’s already using her Nepal connections for education. Students at the Guadalupe school where she teaches have written notes to their counterparts in Nepal, complete with colorful outlines of their hands. Under the direction of teacher, Julee Bauer, they collected coins and bought hackysack balls to send to the children. The Nepalese students outlined and colored their own hands in reply, along with notes about themselves under greetings such as, “Hi California” and “Hi Dear Friend.”

For now, Danny is volunteering with Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India, after so-called Maoists shut down much of Kathmandu in a massive strike. But he’s already thinking about building his next school.

“I feel like Danny has become a leader, and we just follow along,” said Jan. “We had caused ourselves suffering by trying so hard to earn money. Now we’re trying to generate donations, and we couldn’t be more poor and more happy.

“As Mother Teresa said, ‘If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.’ We’re working to help others. The more you do that, the happier you become.”

Award-winning journalist Kathy Johnston can be reached at kjohnston
@newtimesslo.com.

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