Montana nonprofit continues earthquake relief, education efforts

By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor

The tiny, mountainous country of Nepal was shaken by two massive earthquakes last April and May, killing nearly 9,000 people. The death toll is overwhelming in its own right, but the effect on survivors could be an even greater catastrophe.

The World Bank reports that the lives of 8 million Nepalis were upended, and the Red Cross estimates 900,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. With dozens of governments and thousands of NGOs responding with aid after the tremors, many wonder why the country is still in crisis a year later.

One southwest Montana dentist has seen first hand how corruption and bureaucratic lethargy are plaguing Nepal.

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With the assistance of Tsering’s Fund, the village of Sindhupalchok is ready to rebuild this school destroyed by the earthquakes. Villagers have demolished and salvaged what was left of the structure and will build six classrooms and library in what remains.

Dr. Peter Schmieding, who lives in Bozeman and practices dentistry in Big Sky, was in the country when the second massive tremor hit May 12, after traveling to assist the humanitarian response to the April 25 quake.

Outlaw Partners’ CEO Eric Ladd and Video Director Wes Overvold joined Schmieding later in May to deliver additional supplies and document the relief effort—Outlaw Partners is the publisher of EBS.

Schmieding returned in October with his wife and three adopted Nepali daughters, and then most recently this spring.

“Nepal has had little rebuilding done in the hardest hit areas,” Schmieding wrote in a May 16 Facebook message from Katmandu. “The embargo of fuel and building products by India for many months after the earthquakes caused prices to spike and [is] making any rebuilding difficult.”

After the quakes, India had a two-month “unofficial blockade,” according to Nepal’s government, regarding disputed border territory with its largest trading partner.

The price of gasoline in Katmandu was up to $20 per gallon when Schmieding was there in October, he said.

But in addition to the disrupted flow of goods from India, many blame the Nepali government for the glacial pace of recovery. More than 300,000 homeless families were each promised $2,000 by the Nepali authorities to help rebuild, but few have received the assistance, according to numerous reports.

“The government promises to rebuild schools, but after one year nothing is getting done and aid money sits with the government,” Schmieding wrote on May 16.

Schmieding isn’t waiting for the government to help the country rebuild.

Through his nonprofit Tsering’s Fund—established originally to fund education for Nepali children—the Montana dentist has raised nearly $100,000 for earthquake relief.

Last June, more than 250 people packed Big Sky’s Lone Mountain Ranch where $80,000 was raised for Tsering’s Fund efforts. The hallmark auction item was a 16-day trip to Nepal purchased by part time Big Sky resident Tim McKenna and led by Schmieding’s friend Pem Dorjee Sherpa.

Accompanying McKenna to Nepal were Big Sky’s Mike and Nancy Domailles, who donated $20,000 at the LMR fundraiser to rebuild a school, and Schmieding’s patient Mary Grace Wilkus, among others.

The group toured Katmandu, visited the Khumbu region near Mount Everest and trekked to nearly 14,000 feet. But stops at stricken villages where Tsering’s Fund is helping rebuild had the most impact on the American visitors.

“When people lost their homes in the earthquake they literally lost everything they had worked for all their lives,” Wilkus wrote in a recent email. “There is no government help … Kids are in schools that are condemned. Pillars [are] holding up the roof of [a] school with hundreds of kids in it, and the pillar is breaking away from the building.”

Wilkus made a donation that allowed all Tsering’s Fund-sponsored children at Katmandu’s Shridewa boarding school to see the dentist. But her interest in Schmieding’s work began long before she saw the children in person.

“Mingmar is this beautiful girl that Pem [Dorjee Sherpa] found when she was 5 years old working in a shop where she was caring for a 2-year-old boy, sweeping floors … Pem took a picture and sent it to Peter seeking a sponsor for little Mingmar. I saw her photo and immediately told Peter she was sponsored for life,” Wilkus wrote, adding she traveled to Nepal, in part, to meet Mingmar.

Wilkus had also wanted to meet a young woman she’s sponsored named Nima Kachina Sherpa, who is seeking a college degree in nursing. “[Nima] is beyond thrilled that she is in college,” Wilkus wrote.

In a recent interview after his return to Big Sky, Schmieding said that taking Tsering’s Fund donors to see the recovery in Nepal, or lack thereof, is unparalleled.

“To send them a photo is one thing,” he said, “but for them to see it in person is something else.”

Schmieding plans to return to Nepal in October and continue Tsering’s Fund’s efforts. Whether the government makes notable progress in the meantime remains to be seen.