Annapurna Allstars Trek, 1993

A visit by Dr Douglas Callister to Nepal in 1975 left such fond memories of the country that in 1993 he wanted to return.  He suggested to a number of friends with whom he had shared scouting experiences as members of the 1st Hawthorn (Scotch College) Scout Group in the 1950s that they form a trekking group.

Seven former scouts – Doug, Peter Allard, John Findlay, Peter Fishley, Peter Hall, Doug Johnson and Bob Moran – together with Ern Kulmar and Hugh Vidieon dubbed themselves “The Annapurna Allstars”.  They engaged Peregrine Adventures to be led by Naren Tamang on a three week “Annapurna Dhaulagiri Trek”, commencing on 6th October, 1993.

Having reached the high point of their trek, a lake-side shrine to the goddess Bahari at Pautarko Kaire (also known as Khayer Barahi), altitude 4,800 m., they returned to Khopra Danda (Khopra Ridge) where they met Gyan Bahadur Pun.  Gyan, as Headmaster of Paudwar Secondary School, was leading a group of students on an annual excursion.

This chance meeting led to a bond of friendship which has continued ever since.

Donations to Paudwar School

The trekkers gave loose change donations to Gyan for the benefit of his school.  After returning to Australia Doug Callister expressed the desire to add to this support but his intentions were forestalled by his untimely death.  Instead, his friends sent annual donations to the school in his memory.

These donations – not large by Australian standards – had an arduous path to reached the school.  Peregrine Adventures kindly passed them to a trek leader visiting the area, who in turn passed them to a local person who might take them on to the village, as no regular treks passed through Paudwar.  Some but not all of these donations reached their intended destination!

Subsequent visits

In 1998 Peter Hall and his wife Ronda were invited to join another group of trekkers intending to visit the Annapurna region, and they did so on the understanding that they would try to reach Paudwar village.  Their leader, Rinzin Sherpa, was successful in this mission.  The group was warmly welcomed in the village, where they stayed overnight.

This visit gave us the opportunity to appreciate at first hand the needs of the school.  The 30 yr old stone buildings gave draughty accommodation, having just wooden shutters rather than windows.  The school library consisted of a couple of shelves of dilapidated books covered in brown paper.

This experience stimulated Peter and Ronda who, on their return to Australia, advertised in the Australian book trade “Weekly Book Newsletter” for book donations.  A 100kg consignment of books was collected and dispatched.

In 2001, Peter and Ronda decided to return to the village.  They flew to Kathmandu and on to Pokhara, then took the 4 hour taxi trip, much of it over a rough dirt road to Beni.  There they were met by Krishna Pun, a teacher from the school, who led them on the trek to the village.  This entailed a day’s walk up the Kali Gandaki River (including an overnight stop) followed by a 4 hour climb from Tatopani rising almost a thousand metres to the village.

Peter and Ronda had taken with them eight computers donated by the Hydro Electric Corporation of Tasmania (a mix of desktops and laptops) which were warmly welcomed.  They allowed the school to introduce the teaching of computer science which, in subsequent years, attracted new students to the school from considerable distances.

Operation of the computers depended on the availability of electricity which had been connected to the village only the year before, and was still very unreliable.  The classrooms, open to the elements, were anything but suitable for housing computers, so plans were developed for the construction of dual Science / Computer Science classrooms with an associated toilet block.  Funds were subsequently remitted from Australia to allow the classrooms to be built in 2002.

In the years that followed Nepal experienced considerable political unrest, including the Maoist "People's War" in which 12,800 people were killed (4,500 by Maoists and 8,200 by the government.  Source: National Geographic Magazine Nov. '05 via Wikipedia) and an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people were internally displaced as a result of the conflict (among them Krishna Pun and his family).  Although trekkers were generally untouched by the conflict beyond demands for "donations" of up to US$25 to the Maoist cause, we chose not to return at this time.

By 2008 we decided the time had come for another visit before growing to old to make the climb up to the village (Peter celebrated his 70th birthday in the plane on the way over).  Once again we were bearing a load of computers as well as a freight consignment of books for the library.  By this time the road had reached Tatopani, though its condition made for very slow going.  Peter and Ronda arrived at the village in time to witness the historic Constitutional Election which led to the reintroduction of democracy to the country.  Despite our age, we made it to Khopra Ridge again, Peter for the third time and Ronda her second.  The views of Dhaulagiri, the Annapurnas and the Kali Gandaki valley - the deepest in the world - are stupendous!

September 2009 saw yet another visit, this time in the company of daughter Karen, son-in-law Matthew and grandchildren Reuben (12), Zachary (9), Brianna (6) and Genevieve (3).  A baggage allowance dispensation by Singapore Airlines allowed us to take in sixteen computers as well as numerous cartons of medical supplies and books.

In April 2012 a team of seven volunteers - Peter and Ronda Hall, Karen Stocks, Margaret Milburn, Deb Lewis and Pat Baines - visited Paudwar to run a Holiday Program for the children of the village prior to the commencement of the new school year.  A great time was had by all.

In April 2014 another team visited, comprising Peter Hall, Pat Baines, World Peace Clown Susan Carew, Gordon Nightingale

In April 2015 the team comprised Peter and Ronda Hall, Garth and Marg Perkin, Somraudee Parry, Rowena Hutchins and her daughters Amy and Claire.

The Association sponsored a visit to Australia by Krishna Pun and his children Krishta and Sharad, arriving December 2012 and returning February 2013.  This was an opportunity for Krishna to learn about dairy and goat farming, to attend hospitality courses, and to meet up with Rotarians in Australia.  Needless to say this first trip outside Nepal was a great experience for the family.

Involvement of Rotary International

Thought had been given to the establishment of a charity to provide ongoing support to Paudwar village and to similar initiatives in other villages.  Australian government regulations rendered this impractical, but a suggestion was then received that Rotary International might provide an appropriate umbrella.  The upshot was that Peter joined the Rotary Club of Woodend, gained the local support of the Rotary Club of Pokhara Annapurna, and obtained registration of the project by Rotary Australia World Community Service (RAWCS).

This not only met the goal of tax deductibility but also brought numerous other advantages including networking, potential funding and insurance.

Formation of the Nepali Village Initiatives Association Inc.

The next step was the formation and incorporation of the Association to manage the project, including the collection and remittance of funds.  This has become a lot more streamlined than the old days of giving money in an envelope to a trek leader to pass on to the village.  Instead, funds are sent by electronic transfer from our bank account in Australia directly to the appropriate bank account in Nepal, such as the Paudwar School account or the Khayer Barahi Milk Production Co-operative account.

The operations of the Association are entirely voluntary, so that 100% of all money collected goes directly to project expenses, most of which are incurred in Nepal.

Establishment of LEARN

In 2012, the Australian Himalayan Foundation achieved Basic level accreditation with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  This yielded substantial from the Australian Government to further their teacher training initiatives in the Solu Khumbu region of Eastern Nepal.  This result in REED, the NGO they had helped to establish more than a decade earlier, became fully committed to servicing their needs.  Accordingly they were no longer able to meet our needs in Western Nepal.

A search for an alternative training provider failed to identify any that met our stringent criteria.  This led us to the bold step of establishing LEARN in 2014. 

Accreditation as a Public Benevolent Institution

At the AGM in Nov. 2015 a new set of rules was adopted in preparation for registration withh the Australian Charitis and Not-for-profits Commission.  This led in 2016 to accreditation as a Public Benevolent Institution, giving full tax exemption including deductibility of donations.

Funding from the estate of former Portland Rotarian Andrew Jack

As far back as 2012, the project was brought to the attention of trustees of the estate of Andrew Jack, formerly  member of the Portland Club.  This led to a couple of significant grants that allowed the Association to continue the training that had begun in 2011 with the assistance of a Rotary Foundation District Funding grant from District 9800.

By 2014 LEARN had been established with the intention of engaging permanent staff, but it could not do so without a guaranteed source of income.  The Andrew Jack estate provided the answer in the form of a grant of AU$800,000 which has been invested as a permanent fund.  It has provided the income of $40,000 per annum need to guarantee LEARN salaries, while achieving capital growth to maintain real value.  The fund balance at 31/12/17 stood at $875,000.

Change of name
Later in 2016 the Board decided that the name of the Association should be changed to reflect the adopted focus on education nd in particular teacher training.  The name LEARN was adopted with the tag line "Lifting Education, Advancing Rural Nepal".

Rotary Foundation Global Grant

In 2014 the Association was awarded a booth in the House of Friendship at the Rotary International Convention in Sydney. 
  This marked the beginning of a campaign to attract Rotary Clubs to commit to sponsorship of a Foundation Global Grant project.  The process took two and a half years, but was ultimately successful, with eight Australian clubs and three Districts,together with six Nepalese clubs contributing, attrating matching funds from tThe Rotary Foundation.  The program commenced in April 2017.  The search is now on for sponsors for further Global Grnt projects, to further expand the number of teachers in training.

Continuing growth of the number of teachers in training

The generosity of private donors has allowed us to further extend the training, with a program for another 75 teachers of Pakhapani district scheduled to commence in June 2018.