One of the things I most love about blogging is getting to know other travelers – bloggers or not – who are just as passionate about seeing and experiencing other countries and cultures as I am (indeed, I’m not alone in my travel addiction). And when I meet other purposeful travelers, I feel even more connected and motivated as a global citizen to keep seeking ways to use my own travels to bring about positive social change.
I don’t remember exactly when or how I came across the website for Nana’s House, but when I did, I recall bookmarking it and “penciling in” its founder, Joshua Bingham, into my editorial calendar for an interview as part of my Travel Trailblazers series. I wanted to know more about this young American guy who’s starting a nonprofit children’s home to benefit the children of Nepal.
Joshua Bingham is a 24-year-old native of Vashon, WA, who, after graduating from college, wanted to pursue his teenage dream of becoming an actor. But during a five month stint volunteering at Parizat Nestling Home, an orphanage in Nepal, he fell in love with the country and its people. While volunteering, he connected with the orphaned children and learned about the struggles and hardships that many of them had endured. An encounter with two homeless boys who survived by begging led Joshua to make a promise to himself that he’d return to Nepal with greater means to help suffering children like the boys he met.
Thus, Nana’s House was born. Named after Joshua’s grandmother to reflect the safety and love he feels whenever he visits her house, the mission of Nana’s House is to help at-risk and underserved Nepalese children. Next week, Joshua will be returning to Nepal to work on securing the land on which he intends to build a guest house for tourists that will support the children’s home he intends to open to serve Nepal’s disadvantaged youth.
Fortunately, I was able to snag this interview with Joshua in time before his departure. Read on to learn more about this travel trailblazer and discover how he’s using his travels for others’ good.
When did you first start traveling and where was your first trip abroad?
My first ever trip abroad was when I was 15-years-old and a sophomore in high school when my dad moved me and my family to Saigon, Vietnam, so that he could work as a principle at an English-based private school. The trip was truly a life changing experience, and being at such an impressionable age, it had that much more of an impact on how I looked at the world from then on.
Prior to volunteering in Nepal, did you have any experiences volunteering at home or abroad?
In middle school, one of our annual class trips was to Guadalajara, Mexico, where we volunteered at an orphanage for two weeks. That was my first look into the lives of children who weren’t as fortunate as me, born with two loving parents and not having to worry about where I was sleeping or getting my food that night. My mother was the head of the local food bank on Vashon so I would routinely come in every Wednesday and Thursday and volunteer passing out the groceries and toiletries to local families in need. In high school I volunteered with the YMCA and was a youth ambassador for Japanese teens coming to visit Seattle.
What motivated you to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal in the first place, and how did you find out about your initial volunteer placement at the Parizat Nestling Home?
In the winter of 2012, I’d just graduated from Evergreen State College in Washington. In need of some adventure but having a very limited income, I started looking on Google for cheap ways to not only travel but to also have the opportunity to make a difference. I stumbled upon IVHQ which is a placement agency that sends volunteers looking to do service, orphanage or medical work abroad. I knew that I had a strong affinity for Asia and was certain that it was to be the continent I’d choose. Nepal happened to be the only country I hadn’t been to in Asia that IVHQ sent volunteers to. Because of the fact that it wasn’t only cheap, but a new destination, I readily signed up.
How will Nana’s House achieve its mission of helping at-risk and underserved kids in Nepal?
Currently, the main goal of Nana’s House is to start a social services center on the outskirts of Pokhara in a district called Bhalam. This would include a children’s home, a guest house for volunteers which generates income for the home, a full staff manning a service center that would help displaced children (read: children who have been labeled as orphans, but in reality have family), and if the possibility to relocate them back into a loving home in the country is possible, do so. We are fully aware that this is a several years process, and in the meantime while we build up funds, apply for 501(c)(3) status, and gain contacts, we plan small projects in the area like building temporary lodging for street children and refurbishing current children’s homes that are in need of funding.
How did you choose the region where you’d like to build the children’s home?
The President of Nana’s House, Judy Schumann, and I, went back to Nepal for our third time in March of this year with our goal being to find land to support this goal. We must have looked at over 12 pieces of property, most being way too expensive and impractical as far as distance from the nearest city and utilities. It seemed almost meant to be because the last piece of land we looked at – as Judy and I felt very uneasy about what we had accomplished there – was a piece of land in Bhalam, a 20 minute drive from Pokhara. The second we arrived, I’ll always remember the look Judy and I shared as we both acknowledged that this was the perfect piece of property. Running water, electricity on site, a massive piece of property, gorgeous views of the mountains, 10 minutes from the second biggest hospital in Nepal, and a 15 minute walk to three local schools. It’s perfect. Where do we currently stand? We’ve been able to bring the owner down considerably on the price and have settled on $27,000. A very fair price on a fantastic piece of land.
Is sustainability a priority for Nana’s House? If so, how does Nana’s House strive to bring about sustainable change in Nepal?
Sustainability is huge for us. There’s no way that we plan to start a children’s home unless we are positive that we have the means to keep it running. We’ve taken many steps to start researching this including other children’s homes in Nepal that have tourist guest houses on site where proceeds go directly to the organization. We’ve partnered with a local organization called Hope Nepal which will serve as our information and our access to the community. We’re very aware that we cannot jump the gun on this process. I’ll be the first to tell you that we’re still very much in the beginning process of learning more about the problems that face street children and how best to serve them.
How many children will the children’s home be able to accommodate and how long will the children be able to reside in the home?
We’ve crunched the numbers as far as what local children’s homes spend per month with the population they have and we’ve concluded that we can support up to 15 children if we’re able to keep up our average of $1,000 a month in donations. We hope to be able to support the children through college and having ways for people to make donations to specific children’s college funds. Many houses operate on the idea that they support the child until they’re 18 and then they’re on their own from there; this is something we strive not to do.
What types of programs will the children’s home provide?
We hope to provide many different programs for the children such as schooling, medical expenses, clothing, and of course a roof over their heads and food on the table. A great big garden, which is possible on this massive land is also a possibility and would certainly be a dream come true to be able to grow our own vegetables and fruit.
You say that Nana’s House is your love letter to Nepal. In what ways has Nepal made you a better human being?
Nana’s House is my giant love letter to the country of Nepal that has changed my world for the better. Nowhere have I found the generosity and love that exists within these people, many of whom only have a few scraps of clothing to their name. The willingness to give the shirt off of their backs when they might not have another one. The smiles, the warmth, and love of life shown from the children at the many children’s homes I visit, despite the fact that life has dealt them a very cruel hand.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of articles discouraging and criticizing voluntourists for various reasons (e.g., voluntourists have a savior complex; voluntourists do more harm than good to local communities, etc.). What do you think about these criticisms?
These are very founded arguments and have a lot of merit because it’s such a complex issue – this idea of volunteering abroad and working in a community you may know nothing about, not speaking the language and sometimes not even being qualified to do the work. The way I see it, at the end of the day, volunteering does more good than harm but that’s not to say that volunteer programs and how we go about sending volunteers to various countries doesn’t need a re-working. It needs a major overhaul.
In my opinion, we need less volunteers but more qualified ones. For starters, if you plan to teach English in a foreign country, you must at least have your TEFL (I received mine 6 months ago for those wondering), and if you plan to do a medical elective you must certainly have certification to be doing this. It’s very profitable for these placement organizations that send volunteers around the world to accept any and everybody that signs up because at the end of the day, it’s money. Most placement organizations know nothing of the damage they do when they a) send unqualified volunteers to third world countries, b) send too many people at one time, and c) send them where they’re not needed.
What advice can you offer for anyone who wants to volunteer with children abroad?
My advice to those wanting to work with children abroad is that if you’re looking at volunteering abroad at an orphanage, make sure you stay there the maximum time possible. It’s unfortunate that many programs allow for volunteers to be there for as short as one week. What in the world is to be gained by a volunteer staying for one week? I believe it’s detrimental to the psyche of the children to have to see hundreds of volunteers flow through their home and have a complete change over every month; that is quite unhealthy.
a) Stay the longest time possible.
b) For the first couple of weeks, just observe the flow of everyday life there. Don’t come in with your own ideas about how things should be operated on a daily basis. Blend in as best as possible.
c) Strive to learn the language and learn new words every single day. Children are the best teachers when it comes to new languages and the more you know, the closer you’ll get to the children.
d) Keep the kids at arms-length attachment wise. You know that at some point you’ll be leaving, and the harder you make it for the kids when you depart, the more detrimental to the already fragile emotional state of the children. Not to say you can’t have fun and enjoy yourself, but don’t make it harder on the kids than it has to be when you depart.
Does Nana’s House currently work with voluntourists or will it in the future? Also, will guests who stay at your future guest house be able to volunteer at the children’s home?
Currently we’re not working with volunteers – our efforts are to strengthen the relationship with our partner organizations. But we very much would like to work with dedicated and passionate volunteers who are sensitive and aware of the issues facing at-risk children in Nepal. We are planning for anyone staying at the guest-house to also come on the basis of volunteering at the children’s home. Long term guests getting the priority, with some sort of Skype or interview session beforehand to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
What types of fundraising efforts have you used to raise funds for Nana’s House?
As far as fundraising efforts go, we’ve had garage sales, a bake sale, several different speaking engagements on the goals of Nana’s House to fairly large groups, the sale of hand knitted hats (by our own Judith Schumann!), and donations through our website. When our 501(c)(3) status is approved, we then will be able to receive tax deductible donations and apply for grants which will be huge for us! We plan to be finished with our 501(c)(3) within the next month, and according to the IRS website, it takes between five months and two years for everything to be finalized.
Is a permanent move to Nepal in your near future?
A permanent move to Nepal later on down the road is certainly an option and is something I fantasize about often. I would love for that to be a possibility one day if everything works out.
What does your Nana think about your altruistic efforts in Nepal?
Every Sunday I see my Nana for lunch and every week she wants an update on how everything is going and my plans for when I go back this August 28th. She keeps the fire lit underneath me and reminds me of the importance of what I’m doing every single day. I couldn’t have asked for a better grandmother in this world and it was a no-brainer as far as what I was going to name my organization.
Do you still have any acting aspirations?
My acting aspirations have certainly been put on the back burner after the discovery of my philanthropic goals and how good it makes me feel to be doing all this. I’m having fun, I’m getting to do what I love, and it makes me happy. Doesn’t get any better than that – right?
Why do you travel?
I travel because it’s the one thing in this world that I can never get enough of. The pursuit of new perspectives and ideals and the discovery of new cultures are something that will never get old for me. The immense jubilation, and sometimes outright singing when I’ve purchased my plane ticket to wherever life has decided to take me is the BEST feeling in the world.*All photos have been provided courtesy of Joshua Bingham. To learn about Nana’s House or to make a donation, visit their website or their Facebook page.