From Myanmar, with love, joy and gratitude

Dr. Nge Nge, the Myanmar in-country director of the Shanta Foundation’s sustainable village project, apologized for her English but found ways to make herself perfectly understood at a fundraiser in the ballroom in Fort Lewis College’s Student Union Building. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of IlluminArts Photography/Erin Delventhal

Dr. Nge Nge, the Myanmar in-country director of the Shanta Foundation’s sustainable village project, apologized for her English but found ways to make herself perfectly understood at a fundraiser in the ballroom in Fort Lewis College’s Student Union Building.

While Durango and La Plata County pride themselves on their generosity of spirit – it’s just what we do – it’s a bit surprising to think of Durango as the headquarters of one of the most effective nongovernmental organizations in the world when it comes to helping residents in a developing nation, well, develop.

But Durango resident Jeffrey Merkel, an honorary director of Vitamin Angels, which provides neonatal and children’s vitamins to 25 million children in more than 90 countries around the world, says Shanta Foundation’s model for building sustainable and thriving communities in Myanmar (formerly Burma) is one of only two he’s seen that works. (He said there are 2 million nonprofits in the world. Yikes!) And more than that, he thinks it’s a model that could work anywhere in the world.

Shanta Foundation, if you haven’t figured it out already, is based in Durango. It was founded by Mike and Tricia Karpfen in 2006, after they visited Southeast Asia and saw both the dire poverty and the generosity of spirit of the people of the Pa-O Tribe in the Shan state of Myanmar. And they saw how a few dollars could go a long way.

Anyone who has paid any attention to the international political scene knows that Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in the world and has suffered under a repressive military regime for decades. The mere fact that the Karpfens have been able to be effective there is pretty impressive.

My colleague John Peel has written about Shanta a couple of times, once in its early days and again after a group of Durangoans went to Myanmar to see the foundation’s work. But it was time to revisit Shanta and see what it has achieved in the last few years.

Thanks to board member Candice Carson, I was invited to Shanta’s annual dinner Tuesday night at Fort Lewis College, where I was joined by 249 area residents who either already were supporters or were intrigued enough to spend an evening learning more.

The highlight of the evening was the presence by Dr. Nge Nge, nicknamed “Small Small” because no one here can pronounce her name. She is the director of Shanta’s work in Myanmar, and it was the first time she had been allowed to leave the country.

It took her four days to get to Durango. She was clearly excited to be in the country at the same time as Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the most famous political prisoners in modern history. Suu Kyi is in the U.S. accepting a Congressional Gold Medal and speaking at a variety of events during a 17-day tour.

Nge Nge’s own story is extraordinary. Most children in her country are lucky to get more than three or four years of education, but Nge Nge’s parents, a carpenter and a noodle-shop owner, worked and saved for her to realize her dream of becoming a doctor. That should have opened doors for her, but because her family has little money and no powerful connections, she could not find work in her field, even as a volunteer.

Then, in 2008, she was hired by the Karpfens as a translator, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not only has she helped each of the villages the Shanta Foundation is working with get a trained midwife-nurse, thus greatly reducing the rate of infant and maternal mortality, she has worked with them on the other areas Shanta focuses on – “comprehensive, sustainable programming in education, health care, economic development and basic infrastructure,” as its website, www.shantafoundation.org, so succinctly puts it.

Perhaps the part that so struck Merkel is that the foundation doesn’t just give aid – it expects the villagers to contribute what they can in money, time and talents. Mike Karpfen spoke Tuesday about two young girls who made a pact to study hard and go to university six years ago. They start next year and will be the first from their village to go to college.

A college education costs about $200 a month, and Shanta Foundation will pay $150 of that as scholarships. The families are expected to pay the rest. In fact, with Shanta’s help, about 70 percent of the villages’ students are attending middle school and high school, which was too expensive before.

Shanta has a few generous donors who pay the foundation’s expenses, so all tax-deductible donations can go directly to Myanmar. The goal Tuesday night, Tricia Karpfen said, was to raise $60,000, and the crowd was committed to making it happen. As of Thursday afternoon, the total raised was $63,881 and counting.

The Karpfens’ approach is to work with a village for several years, providing help with everything from providing clean water and solar lighting, building schools, creating a community development fund and opening up business opportunities for everyone, including women.

Using Heifer International’s model, they have found that getting pig farms started, with each pig farmer expected to help neighbors get their own started with piglet distribution, doubles a family’s income. Chicken farms that have been established mean that villagers no longer have to walk half an hour to buy eggs.

Merkel said the villagers have a ladder to climb, and Shanta’s help allows them to get solidly onto the first rung. Shanta is currently helping about 1,000 familie3s, but the original four villages will be “graduating” within the next few months and will be ready to keep climbing that ladder by themselves.

Durangoans continue to visit and monitor the progress. High school student Isabella Bussian, the daughter of Erich and Elizabeth Bussian, just went to Myanmar teach a science class this summer. (I predict more humanitarian efforts in her future.)

The Karpfens, outreach coordinator Katherine Hollis and Shanta’s in-country staff are preparing to partner with another 1,000 families, so three-year pledges are extremely helpful in allowing them to do some planning.

There are a ton of great causes out there, and I would never discourage folks from supporting their favorite international organization. But if you’re looking for a more personal, intimate way to make a big difference in some people’s lives, Shanta looks like a great way to go.

Some people I really respect, including Carson, Bill Carver, John Heavenrich, Dr. Fred Whitehurst, Linda Barnes and Ross Park are involved, which is a powerful endorsement.

Beverly Capelin perhaps said it best, “I have complete confidence in your mission and your delivery.”

Contributions may be mailed to Shanta Foundation, P.O. Box 1603, Durango, CO 81302; or via credit card on the website mentioned above.

The difference is simple. A donation makes people dependent. A development plan with the villagers as partners fosters independence and growing prosperity.

Nge Nge is in town for another 10 days or so, and if you see her around town, be sure to introduce yourself and welcome her. And while you’re at it, ask her about her work.

You’ll be glad you did.

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These folks are another year wiser this week – Josh Spaeder, Roxanne Hamilton, Debbie Rowe, Brian Grandin, Merrillie Hock, Bruce Nye, Mae Reed, Ben Southworth, Jessica Steele, Kim Eisner, Margaret Vallejos, Linkin Griego, Dewey Peden, Patricia Mertens, Jennifer Jenkins, Bryan McCoy, Matthew Ogier and Jeff McElwain.

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Nothing says happy anniversary like some freshly pressed apple cider and a brisk fall day for Bill and Susan Terrill Flint, Robb and Amy Bourdon and Darrell and Diane Gardner.

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Here’s how to reach me: neighbors@durangoherald.com; phone 375-4584; mail items to the Herald; or drop them off at the front desk.