Two volunteers describe their experience giving back in Nepal
For the last few years, employees of Volkswagen Group of America, including Audi of America, have had the privilege to collaborate with an organization called Kids of Kathmandu to travel to Nepal and rebuild schools in an effort to recover from the catastrophic earthquake of 2015.
Though the mission to rebuild remains the same, each year the volunteers experience something different. Some days it’s the humbling moment of witnessing the impact of the smallest gestures, or on other days, experiencing the inebriating aromas that travel through the deep village valleys.
This year marked year four of the project and for some of the volunteers, including Michele Gregory, communications & events senior specialist at Audi of America and Matt McKown, senior area sales manager - Western region at Lamborghini. For both Michele and Matt, Nepal holds a special place in their heart. We spoke to both Michele and Matt about their experience to gain insight on what the trip entailed.
What made you want to be a part of this effort? And how has it evolved throughout the years?
Michele: The first moment I heard about the trip at the All Employee Meeting (AEM) in Austin a few years ago, I approached Eric Socia and told him I wanted to be a part of it. Blown away inspired by the commitment to help others in need, I was thrilled to see Audi supporting the efforts. Year one, I took my father on the trip. He hadn’t left the country in 40 years and the journey was a very special father and daughter experience. Year two, I took my travel loving colleague and dear friend, Erin Bronner, from the Bentley team. Year three, I didn’t bring anyone along on the journey but selfishly wanted to completely immerse myself in every moment and Erin had come back with her childhood best friend, Brittany. We have assembled different people into our volunteering group from around the world, different ages, different backgrounds and everyone leaves impacted by the journey.
Matt: Every trip has its pros and cons, and they are all so different. This year we stayed in the Himalayas. Every school is different in terms of what we are building and how we are building it, and then every village is different in terms of how we interact with the kids and how the village interacts with us. Therefore, it’s hard to say which experience was the best. But every year is great in its own way.
What was it like being in Nepal?
Michele: The villages where we volunteer are three-plus hours outside of the city and often in the side of a mountain with very limited access to electricity or running water. The elevation of our campsite this year was so high. One morning we actually woke up above the clouds. It was surreal and magical which is the only way I can describe Nepal.
Who comes up with the design of the structure?
Matt: We have more input on the location than we do with design. Our entire collaboration is with Kids at Kathmandu and their organization has architects in New York, as well as Nepal. They work on the designs, and the design is determined by the location and size of the village, as well as the number of children.
What were some of the special moments you were able to share with the children?
Michele: Over the three years, I have had so many special moments. The first year I brought makeup to share with the girls. It turned recess into an entire afternoon of me having one-on-one interaction with each child. Boy or girl- it didn’t matter because they didn’t express any insecurities, they just wanted to play. Joy overcame any language barrier. An equally incredible moment was pulling everything out of my bag and giving it away the first year on the final day. I have done a lot of community service but to give shoes to someone who has probably never owned a pair of even flip flops - I carry that experience very close to my heart.
What from this experience (or overall) resonated with you the most?
Michele: Generosity and kindness. Watching my friends and peers be the most unselfish and giving humans possible and experiencing financial donations from people I would least expect.
How much were you and the team able to accomplish this time around? And what might be expected for next year?
Michele: The physical labor is minimal in the grand scheme of building a school. A week is a short amount of time when you have very primitive resources for construction. The greatest accomplishment is always the connection with the people in the school and the community. We may be the only Americans they ever meet. We have the power to influence their opinion of our country as kind, caring and willing to help others. It’s a powerful feeling to be an “ambassador;” you deeply hope to be the best representative possible of the U.S. and of Audi.
Matt: There’s a lot of things we can do - whether it’s spreading awareness on oral health or menstruation for women (being huge in Nepal for women). There are lot of issues that need to be dealt with and we can only teach them so much. But we would like to have a greater impact and to go back and help teach the basics in baby steps and go from there, like how to dispose of waste.
What have you accomplished so far other than the building of schools?
Matt: We have now gone to three different locations to help rebuild. Last year we built a bathroom in extension of the school, and a basketball hoop. Last year we also built a bridge across the river. This helped minimize the distance to the school which was initially a mile or two. This was a way to trim it down. We finished in a couple of hours. However the bridge washed away because of a monsoon, but the villagers rebuilt one. This was a new concept and addition to something they didn’t have before.
We also partnered with MPOWERED, a solar power light company that supplies lights that inflate, similar to a floaty in the pool. The lights are no thicker than a notebook when it collapses and when they blow up, they are like a large lantern. The mountains in Nepal don’t have electricity in some places, so after the earthquake, MPOWERED donated a lot of light to the community. And we were able to share that with five to six schools.
We also brought extra supplies and giveaways with us such as books and sunglasses. And the Audi collection donates shirts which the children love and throw on immediately.
From your perspective, what is life like for the children in Nepal?
Michele: The people of Nepal are without so many “things” yet they are deeply happy. Amongst the goats and rubble of earthquakes past, there are people who are intelligent, creative, spirited, passionate and deeply cared for by their families. What they lack in physical things they make up for in what truly matters- community and connection.