The laws of nurture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am

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On a bright winter's afternoon in one of the greener, smarter suburbs of Kathmandu, a group of 18 students laugh and chatter happily as they file through the gates of one of Nepal's top private schools. Immaculately dressed in smart green blazers with school crests, ties and crisply pressed white trousers and skirts, these children are among the young elite in a benighted country, blessed as they are with a first-rate education that has them on course for a place in an overseas university.

Most students at the Gyanodaya Bal Batika Higher Secondary School come from the families of Nepal's wealthy and well-connected. But the background of these 18 boys and girls, who are among the top 10 per cent of the school's students academically, could not be more different or less privileged.

All were born in abject poverty in one of Nepal's remotest provinces, the backward western region of Humla. The children were found seven years ago, filthy and destitute, in a livestock barn on the outskirts of Kathmandu. As a bloody Maoist insurgency raged through the countryside, they had been put into the hands of friendly traffickers by their desperate parents and relatives and packed off to the capital, in the hope that they would somehow find a better life.

Their bewildering journey saw them leave a cluster of farming villages with no electricity, where the inhabitants scrape a living on barter and black trade across the Chinese border, to be thrust into the unforgiving cauldron of smog, squalor and corruption that is Kathmandu. All aged between three and nine at the time they left their homes, they could have easily ended up, like thousands of children from Humla and other poor provinces before them, as illegal workers in carpet factories or sweatshops, child sex workers or beggars.

In a twist of good fortune, however, their discovery coincided with the arrival in Nepal of former Hong Kong business executive Eugene Lane-Spollen and his wife, Maura, who set up a home that would transform the children's lives in an extraordinary way.

Lane-Spollen, a former senior vice-president of Coca-Cola who had worked in Hong Kong, Manila and Bangkok, created a charity specifically to raise the Humla children and provide them with the best education.

In a large, rambling home near their school, the 18 children, along with two more of their original number - a boy and a girl who have moved on to college - live as a family under the care of a home manager and his wife. The mission of the Humla Children's Home is to turn the former urchins into scholars.

Seven years on, the children have succeeded beyond their sponsors' expectations, and many are on the cusp of being sent to top universities in Calcutta, India, and possibly China, to complete a unique and remarkable reversal of fortunes.

THE LANE-SPOLLENS, an Irish couple who had set up children's charities for Coca-Cola during their time in Asia, were visiting Nepal for the first time in the spring of 2004, at the recommendation of friends who run an NGO in the country. They expected to sponsor one child - possibly.

Eugene, 64, says: 'I had been to all the other countries in the region - Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, China and even Afghanistan - but never Nepal. When we got there we thought, 'Oh my God, this is appalling.'

'We were so shocked when we saw Nepal. Outside of Kathmandu, it really is beautiful and dramatic, but I was really shocked with the poverty in Kathmandu.'

Their friends pointed them in the direction of the Humla children. 'We heard there were a group of children who had been brought in and they were somewhere in a barn hoping someone would pick them up,' Eugene says. 'So we decided to go and have a look. They were in a barn that was about 30 metres by 10 metres over two floors. It was the kind of place where in Ireland or England you'd park half a dozen tractors. Here, it was a place where animals would be kept. They'd been there for about two weeks.

'There was a rickety ladder leading to the top and, when you got there, you couldn't see a thing, because there were no windows. And then, when your eyes got used to it, you realised that all these children were sitting on the ground looking back at you.

'There was a piece of string across the room and that's where all the clothes were and that was the only furniture there was in the barn. It was a case of first up, best dressed, I guess.'

It did not take long for the Lane-Spollens to decide to take all 19 of the children they found sheltering in the barn under their wing and set up a charity specifically to guide them through school, although initially they had no idea how far children from illiterate families could hope to progress.

'There was no way you could just take one child and leave the rest,' Eugene says. 'It was an all-or-nothing thing.'

They even sent for one girl who had been separated from the group and returned to Humla because the traffickers felt she would struggle at school in the capital and would be better off back home.

'The courier who was dealing with them said, 'You shouldn't take her.' And because he said it, we did,' says Eugene. 'We felt you can't sail that close to an opportunity and not have it. So we sent for her and took her along with the rest of them.'

The first years were an education, not just for the children but for the Lane-Spollens, too, who appointed and reappointed home managers and shuttled between Europe and Asia, closely monitoring the children's progress.

'At first, everything in Kathmandu was strange to them,' Eugene says. 'They were coming from places that would never have even seen a bar of soap.

'When they went to their first school, it was terribly strange for them. The most exciting thing was having a uniform. They had never looked so smart in all their lives. The fact they all looked the same was a big hoot to them.

'The only problem we had in those early days was on Mothers' Day or Fathers' Day. Some would be in tears, because they didn't have one.'

Gradually, guided by a developing regime of study and discipline, the children began to catch up with and overtake their classmates.

'As we observed them, we came to realise they are just like any other bunch of kids,' says Eugene. 'With the passage of time we saw that there is no reason in the world why they can't do whatever they want. The regime in the home is fun, but there is a lot of discipline involved. Everything runs by a schedule. We arrange tutorials where necessary, so that if a kid runs into some kind of roadblock in mathematics or Nepali, you bring in somebody, usually from the school, and sort it out and move on.'

One of the home's top students is Rita Bhandari, 14, who lost her father in the insurgency and was distraught when she had to leave her mother, younger brother and sister behind. On a Saturday afternoon, during a break from her studies, Rita says: 'I used to just cry and cry. I thought about my family all the time, and I missed them.

'But life was very difficult in our village. We had to look after all the animals and we had nothing. Now, when I speak to my mother by phone, she tells me, 'Just you study. We are fine and you mustn't worry about us.''

Rita has developed into an outstanding student, who is top of her class and dreams of becoming a pilot. Asked what she thought of Eugene, who now visits the children once a year, Rita proudly shows off a letter he sent to congratulate her on her latest aca- demic milestone.

'He has a very big heart,' she says. 'I think he was chosen by God to help us.'

Saran Chatta, also 14, remembers children in floods of tears as they left Humla.

'Some of them were very sad,' he says. 'I was very happy, though, because I was thinking it would be nice in Kathmandu and we would find lots of good things here.

'When I graduate, I want to be an engineer. I want to go back and build a good road in Humla. If they have a good road it will make a lot of difference. Life will be easier for them and there are many natural resources in Humla they can take advantage of.'

The desire to one day return to Humla is common among the children. Another student says she wants to become a teacher and go back to her home province to work.

'They want to return to Humla and are very emotional about it,' says the home's manager, Chand Rai. 'One of them entered an art competition and designed a futuristic Humla, with power lines, roads and high-rise buildings.'

Rai says he feels fortunate to be a surrogate father to the students. 'These children succeed because they study so hard,' he says. 'For our part, we keep telling them where they are from and how they have to work to take their opportunity. We don't have lavish funds. It is just needs. Many homes in Kathmandu funded by NGOs have lots of facilities. We don't. Once a year, [the children] get new clothes and, occasionally, when we have the money, we take them to see a movie. We tell them the first reason they are here is to be educated.'

Even though they are in a school mostly populated by middle-class children, the Humla youngsters have never been picked on or bullied by other students.

'They don't have any problems because they are very good at their studies,' Rai says. 'In fact, the principal points out to other children that the Humla children are very good students.'

Although most have never returned to Humla, the children who have parents speak to them by phone every few months and families are kept informed of their progress.

Last year, one 13-year-old boy was asked to return to Humla to visit his sick mother. When he arrived, he found a marriage had been arranged for him with a 10-year-old girl in the village, in line with the region's child- bride customs. The teenager fled, rang the home in Kathmandu for help and, with the aid of a village elder, managed to persuade his family to let him return to his schooling for the good of everyone involved.

'He handled a very difficult situation with his own strength,' Eugene says. 'He had seen over the wall, and that's what it's about. He had got to the stage where he knew that he was going to have a better future than [he would have had] on their little farm, where there might be a few goats and chickens and you marry the girl next door so your land is attached to hers.'

IT IS THE POWERFUL focus on education that distinguishes the Humla Children's Home from the hundreds of other foreign-funded orphanages and homes in Nepal.

'Our vision is to take them from the street to university,' Eugene says. 'In most homes, if there's a very bright child, they will fund that child to university, but it's an exception. Our approach is different. We realised that with enough attention, discipline, care, food and organisation, you can get any child to move up mentally. Some of these children had zero education and lived in a village where the nearest road is three or four days' walk away.'

It was a simple act of humanity that turned the lives of the Humla children around. What they have achieved academically since, however, has implications that go way beyond poverty relief and touch on key issues, such as the nature-versus-nurture debate.

'The lesson of this is that you could take any 20 children from anywhere and apply the same formula - good food, regular food, good discipline, tutorials when they need it and a good school - and there's no reason in the world they can't achieve the same,' Eugene says. 'Fundamentally, you could take any group of children and, presuming their brains have not been damaged by malnutrition, you have every chance of doing exactly the same.'

The project in Kathmandu costs HK$300,000 a year to run, with the Lane-Spollens paying about 70 per cent from their own savings. The couple's four children are all involved in the charity, too. Donors, including the Hope Foundation, in Cork, in the couple's native Ireland, make up the rest.

Now, the couple are setting up a fund to pay the children's university fees. All but one or two of them are expected to score high enough grades to enter good overseas universities.

'Each of them will choose their own path after that,' Eugene says. 'The important thing is that they will have the personal capacity to make wise, informed decisions, without the pressure of having to go back and manage a farm. They can decide what they do with their lives.

'As far as Maura and myself are concerned, we are just so pleased when we look at the photograph of the children outside the barn and then the photographs of how they are now. When you look at their faces, you can see they are intelligent and aware. That is our reward.'

For more details about the Humla Children's Home, visit www.lane-spollen.com/humla