After completing four years in the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army, Ben Paul headed home to southern Nevada from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Driving across country with all of his worldly belongings packed in his car was a terrific way to decompress and see places he had only read about.
Upon his return to his parents’ home in Logandale, Nevada, he felt a bit disoriented from the structured military lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. “The first couple of months were exciting,” said Ben. “But then you realize it is time to get serious about figuring out where you want to go from here.”
He spent the spring and summer in northern Nevada working for his brother-in-law and squirreling away every penny he could. While he was happy with his job and surroundings, he wasn’t satisfied or content. He felt he was going nowhere. He knew he would eventually come out on the other side of his discontentment just fine, but his irritation and feelings of being stuck continued to grow. His original goal was to go to school in Fall 2017, but those plans gave way to something much bigger.
One night, after an evening on the town, he came home feeling especially irritated and stuck. It was then that he got on his computer looking for volunteer positions. His search took him to the Love Volunteers website, a group from New Zealand that provides volunteer workers to a variety of countries throughout the world. He chose the country of Nepal because he wanted to go outside of the Americas. Nepal sounded a little exotic and didn’t seem like a major tourist destination. (He later learned that it definitely is a major tourist destination for those who do trekking and mountain climbing.)
He contacted Love Volunteers and worked through their network. He learned that volunteering would cost him money, as he would be expected to pay his way over and back, provide for his own lodging and food, and pay for any other incidentals while he was there. “It is a shocking reality for some, but most organizations run off dues in order to be able to continue their operations,” said Ben. “If they paid for food and accommodations, there would be no money to run their programs.” He continued, “If you consider your every day cost of living, it really isn’t that expensive to volunteer in poorer countries.”
Once in Nepal, he was still little unsettled. He had visions of working in the countryside away from the city, so he was shocked to learn he would be staying with a host family outside of Kathmandu in the city of Bhaktapur. He would work with an English-speaking private school in Lokanthali, Madhyapur Thimi, Nepal that was located just south of the airport. The school served children whose families lived in a slum. Without the school, these children would have no way of receiving an adequate education.
“The poverty didn’t surprise me. I had seen poverty in Afghanistan, and that changed me,” said Ben. “It gave me a deeper appreciation of what we, as Americans, have.”
The school itself is a building of approximately 2,000-square feet. Water for the building comes from a single spigot through a hose. The student body consists of one hundred sixty children ranging in age from kindergarten to high school. They eat the same simple food every day.
The school is run by three men who all have PhDs and generally work about fifteen hours a day to support the school, as well as working as professors on the side. They make no money from their work at the school. These men understand that in order for these kids to break the chains of poverty, it is necessary to educate and teach them to speak English.
At first, Ben was frustrated at how everything moved so slowly. “What would only take a couple of days in the states, took weeks in Nepal,” he explained. The first thing he did was fish a rusted ten-foot fence out of a deep body of water so they could put it back in place to keep animals out of the school.
One of the teachers wanted Ben to build a beautiful garden with flowers and fruit trees. He gathered a bunch of bamboo and started hacking away with a Gurkha, a curved knife, to make stairs. Every cut took five to twenty-five minutes, and there were a couple of hundred sections. In the end, he wasn’t able to finish the garden project because, “It was a lot of work to just finish those damn steps, the better part of two months!” He hopes new volunteers will take on the task and create the beautiful garden for the students.
In the meantime, he kept looking around for something to do that would leave a lasting impact for the children he had grown to love. So many projects get started with good intentions, but then are quickly abandoned. He set his sights on making a positive difference for their education and for the school. That is where the idea of bringing in technology was born.
When Ben proposed bringing computers to the school and hooking them up to the Internet, he was met with skepticism. Never having been exposed to what the Internet could do, those who ran the school didn’t realize just what a difference having that kind of access would make for them and their students. But Ben went ahead and crowd-sourced $3,500 for ten ChromeBooks and found a company who was willing to pay for shipping to get them to Nepal. (All the companies he worked with requested anonymity.)
The hard part was actually getting the ChromeBooks from customs to the school. The government is very corrupt, and makes it expensive to get anything done. One of the government ministries required a 100% tax. There was also a 15% cargo tax, a 13% value-added goods and services tax to air cargo, and a 2% miscellaneous insurance that was more than likely pocketed. After mountains of paperwork, eight trips to the city, and five weeks of waiting, he was finally able to bring the ChromeBooks to the school. “It cost more money to get the computers out of customs than it did for the purchase and shipping combined,” he said.
While he was working to get the ChromeBooks out of customs, his dad Ken Paul, came for a visit, bringing books gathered by the students and teachers from W. Mack Lyon Middle School in Overton, Nevada where he is the principal. He also brought boxes of pens and packages of toothbrushes. The kids were thrilled and so grateful to receive all of these gifts. Ken helped Ben separate teacher materials from children’s books and add to their library that consisted of two five-foot bookcases. Ken was also able to meet and visit with the principal, and listen to his beliefs. The principal had been afforded a good education, and believed that it was his obligation, Karma, to do good and pay it forward.
One ten-year old student became Ben’s little buddy. He was a fairly serious, old soul who had never seen a computer. As Ben and his brother, Adam, who flew to Nepal to help set up the WiFi, Internet, and a website, were setting up the ChromeBooks, the boy’s dad kept telling him not to bother Ben and Adam. But Ben asked if the boy could hang out with him so Ben could teach him how to use the ChromeBooks. Ben put the boy on a typing program, and within an hour, he was typing with all of his fingers in the right places. Not only did he learn to type, he learned to look up YouTube videos and search on Google.
Mahesh, one of the men at the school, was blown away by the information now available to them. “In my whole life,” he said in broken English, “I never knew any technologies like this even existed. Now I can know anything and the childrens will learn anything they dream.”
When asked what the best part of his time there was, Ben says it is hard to boil it down to just one thing. Being able to serve those who are so deserving, being able to see the light in the students’ eyes, being able to personally show his dad and brother what he was doing, being able to share his experiences with others, especially his military family are all highlights. “The entire experience humbled me,” said Ben. “I mean, we live in a very consumer economy, and that’s not a bad thing. But it is hard to remember sometimes money, square footage, owning a couple of cars, and being highly educated isn’t what truly makes a person happy. These people are happy. They are simple, but not simple-minded.”
Has he found the satisfaction and contentment for which he was searching? “I hope I am never completely content,” Ben said. “But I hope that the contentment I find in helping and volunteering will be contagious to others. It isn’t hard to volunteer. It isn’t hard to make a difference. It just takes looking outside yourself and finding out what you can do.”