By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Dr. Peter Schmieding recently returned to southwest Montana from his latest humanitarian mission to Nepal. There he saw a country still struggling to put the pieces back together after two earthquakes brought the nation at the roof of the world to its knees—more than a year and a half ago.
The quakes in April and May of 2015 killed nearly 9,000 people, injured almost 22,000 and caused $10 billion in damage. Nearly 800,000 homes were badly damaged or destroyed. Schmieding found tens of thousands of Nepalis still living in tarp structures in the country’s capital city of Katmandu.
But Schmieding’s latest mission was one of hope, which he found in the resilient people he’s helping. There have been no major earthquakes since the rumbling aftershocks of 2015 and money has finally been distributed from the prime minister’s relief fund.
The government recently released 50,000 rupees—the equivalent of $500 U.S. dollars—to each qualified homeowner affected. While it’s a significant amount of money, it’s not enough for these stricken people to rebuild their homes.
“You can’t build anything with that, and they’re getting it piecemeal,” Schmieding said. “They will get more, but nobody is saving it.” In the village Dhakalkot, where his friend Raj Dhakal lives, only one of 147 damaged houses is currently under construction.
The Bozeman- and Big Sky-based dentist is trying to make an impact where the government is falling short, through his nonprofit Tsering’s Fund. The organization was originally created in 2007 to fund the education of Nepali girls, a demographic that faces numerous cultural and economic challenges to receive decent schooling.
After the earthquakes last year, Tsering’s Fund expanded its scope to include disaster relief in Nepal. Donors in southwest Montana have responded in kind, including an event that raised $80,000 last summer at Big Sky’s Lone Mountain Ranch.
Schmieding says Dhakal and his family are still living in a shelter cobbled together from their damaged home, which is still standing, but unfit to live in. “It’s the Stone Age,” he said. The makeshift house has a dirt floor where they cook meals over an open fire—the same meal of steamed rice, sautéed vegetables and lentils they eat three times a day.
But Dhakal’s family occasionally adds chicken to the dish called dahl bhat, since they’ve turned their old home into a commercial chicken coop. Schmieding says they have several hundred chickens they sell for the equivalent of $3 each.
He said the blueprints are finalized for both schools to be built near Dhakal’s village, financed through Tsering’s Fund, and construction should begin soon. A smaller, k-5 school was funded by a single $20,000 donation and the larger school is about 90 percent financed, mostly from the Big Sky fundraiser last summer.
Schmieding brought two duffel bags with him, weighing 58 pounds each, full of gifts for children from their sponsors here in Montana. He said he spent days tracking down the kids because they were on school break. Despite the outpouring of financial help, he said the largest obstacle Tsering’s Fund confronts is getting annual sponsors for each child.
“Once we get those kids sponsored, it’s great to get them in school, but those tuitions are due every single year,” he said of the 150-plus kids they’re currently sponsoring. “We’ve never, ever sent a child home due to lack of funding. And we never will.”
The biggest challenge facing the country right now is coaxing visitors to return. His colleague Tsering Dolkar Lama, the woman whom the nonprofit is named after, told him tourism is down about 70 percent from pre-earthquake levels.
“Nepal needs the people to come back—the tourists,” Schmieding said.