Saving Children for the Price of a Piglet
Olga Murray could be enjoying the good life with her friends. Instead, she's trekking back and forth to Kathmandu to care for the children she loves.
Friday, May 02, 2008
Photo by Peter H. Chang
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"The biggest failure in my life has been retirement," 82-year-old Olga Murray confides. "I'm working harder than I ever did during my 37 years as an attorney with the California State Supreme Court—and I'm not getting paid a nickel. But I have never been happier."
Her new career started in 1984 when, on her first trip to Asia, Olga became captivated by the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. "I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the land, the exotic surroundings, but most of all by the children," she says. "They were poor beyond anything I had ever experienced—dressed in rags and dirt, malnourished, mostly unschooled, but with an amazing capacity for joy. I thought that for the price of a good haircut, I could make a huge difference in their lives." So she returned to the United States, determined somehow to do just that.
By raiding her own savings and securing donations from friends, she returned to Kathmandu with the means to establish a home for the country's neediest children—street urchins, handicapped kids, orphans, or youngsters who had been abandoned by parents too poor to feed them.
As word spread about her work, generous people worldwide wanted to help. In 1990, two years before she retired, Olga founded a non-profit organization, Nepal Youth Opportunity Foundation [NYOF], and just in time. The children's home, originally for boys, had out of necessity become coed, and was close to overflowing. NYOF rented another house for girls. Both homes provide children with warm beds, hot meals, a safe haven, and security. NYOF offers not only private education, living and medical expenses, but love and personal attention-just as a good parent would do. The kids are nurtured from childhood through college.
Caring for more than 40 rambunctious youngsters and supporting dozens more in school was a formidable task for someone as detail-oriented as Olga. And as she soon discovered, everywhere she turned in Kathmandu, there were even more "opportunities to help."
"I realized that education is the best way to ensure a better life for these children," Olga says, knowing this would become the cornerstone of her work. Over the last 16 years, not only has the number of supported children grown (to 3,000 plus), but so have the ways in which they are helped. In addition to scholarships, NYOF funds the salaries of more than 65 teachers in various poor rural areas of Nepal, as well as teacher training in a country which does not provide it.
Olga's work doesn't stop there. Seven years ago, she discovered that in an area of extreme poverty in remote southwest Nepal, parents sell their daughters to labor recruiters who arrive in villages with cash in hand. The girls, some as young as 7 or 8, are sent to cities where they toil long hours as servants—or worse.
With Olga at the helm, NYOF launched the Indentured Daughters program, which pays parents to keep their daughters at home and in school. In lieu of cash, NYOF offers families a piglet, which they can raise on kitchen scraps and sell, ultimately receiving about as much as they would from their daughter's labor. Olga's nonprofit organization ensures that the girls receive a school uniform, notebooks, pencils, a school bag, a daily snack, and most importantly, a solid education.
"What began as a pilot project with 37 families now includes 2,500 girls," she marvels.
Olga was born in Transylvania in 1925 and came to the United States at age 6. She graduated from Columbia University and attended law school at George Washington University, where she was one of the few female students.
Upon graduating, Olga discovered that no law firm would hire a woman. So she knocked on the door of the California Supreme Court, where she became a research attorney for Chief Justice Phil Gibson. After his retirement, she joined the law staff of Justice Stanley Mosk.
Since her retirement in 1992, Olga divides her time between her homes in Sausalito, California, and Kathmandu, devoting all her energy to helping her children, whom she emails from the States. When she's in Kathmandu, she makes daily visits to the children in the NYOF homes.
Olga is living proof that getting older does not mean slowing down. As she puts it, "A lot of aging is in your mind."
"I'm not that different than I was 25 years ago," she says. "I've stayed active and interested in life. Regular exercise—walking, going to the gym, lifting weights for my knees and back-has helped me stay healthy. I haven't had a cold in 15 years. Also, I'm more positive and more confident than I used to be. I know where I'm going and what I want to do, so I don't get so involved in my own problems."
She adds, "One thing I've learned—compassion, a sense of caring, thinking about the welfare of others-that sort of mental attitude makes you happy."
Her work for the welfare of poor Nepali children gives her life meaning and peace. "My wealthy friends who own huge homes and drive Jaguars and Lexuses often tell me that they envy me. I am fulfilled and happy in what I'm doing."
Marybeth Bond has written eleven award-winning books for National Geographic and Travelers' Tales, most recently 50 Best Girlfriends Getaways, A Woman's World, and Gutsy Women. She has trekked through six continents and more than 70 countries.