Christine Casey: Determination to do it right with Chhahari – a lifeline for at-risk children in Nepal
By SAMANTHA WASHER
Photos by: Mary Hurlbut and Chhahari
The first thing Christine Casey decided to do when her only son went off to Stanford University was to leave the desert and return to Orange County. She arrived in Laguna Beach in 1995. The next thing this retired banker and single mother did was to get involved in her community, volunteering her time with an AIDS services organization, her church (St. Catherine’s) and the Assistance League, to name a few.
“I’m not one for sitting around watching television,” she admits.
A life-changing trek to Nepal
To further the point, in 2004 Casey went on a trek to Nepal… even her leisure activities aren’t very leisurely! But this trip turned out to be a life-changing event – and not just for her.
Profoundly moved by the plight of the abandoned and orphaned children she saw there, Casey could not stop thinking about them when she returned home to Laguna.
“Seeing kids discarded like garbage…it stays with you,” she said. “I told my son I really wanted to go back there and do something for those kids. He helped me realize that I could go back. I had no restrictions; no husband, no children at home…so I backed off all the other things I was doing and started getting money from people, from my church, to help the kids.”
Tom Davis, Chhahari and making a real difference
Realizing that to be truly effective she needed to form a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, she called local lawyer, Tom Davis.
“I knew his wife, Martha, from volunteering at AIDS services, so I called him, explained who I was and what I needed. For a very small retainer fee he helped me set up Chhahari. That was the last one I ever gave him! Now he’s the Chairman of the Board. This guy…you can’t even believe how great he is,” says Casey enthusiastically.
Chhahari, Nepalese for “shelter”, is the organization Casey formed in 2007 to help some of those children she met in Nepal.
Chhahari’s mission states that it “…is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising funds to provide food, shelter, education and health care for the multitude of orphaned and underprivileged children of Nepal.” Chhahari currently houses and cares for approximately 25 children.
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Chhahari kids get to smile and have some fun together
The process for vetting the children who come to Chhahari is extensive. They must either be orphaned or their families have no ability to care for them.
“The only way to change these poor, corrupt countries is from within,” laments Casey. “They want to keep the poor – poor.”
Determined to do things right
Setting up a charitable organization in Nepal was neither simple nor straightforward. Finding the right people to run things almost 8,000 miles away was the first challenge.
“I was a banker my entire adult life. I want the nuts and bolts to add up at the end of the day,” she says, adding gratefully that she has “full faith” in the Nepalese people working for Chhahari. “There has never been a penny missing.”
And she can count the pennies because the operating budget is about as tight as it can be. “We are all volunteers,” she said. “I pay my own way back and forth every time I go. Our budget is $35,000 a year. $500 of that goes to marketing and advertising. Other than that it all goes to Chhahari. I had to make it so that I know that your money is going here and doing exactly that. We are doing it the right way.”
Unlike the United States’ “failed foster care system”, as Casey calls it, her kids never “age out.”
“We will never kick a kid out in the street,” she says. “You need to give them a chance.” Making them leave before they are ready means they have to deal with the same problems at-risk kids do here, even if the means are different.
“Glue sniffing is a big problem there. So is alcohol…it’s the homemade kind that kills you, by the time you’re 30,” she says sadly.
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The children of Chhahari
Beyond their basic needs, Casey is determined to bring her charges into the 21st century. “I took them to see ‘The Laramie Project’,” she says. (The Laramie Project is a play, based on the aftermath of the young gay man, Matthew Shephard, murdered in Laramie, Wyoming.)
“The play came to Nepal. It was a hard thing to explain [to the kids]…the whole LGBT thing… but they eventually got it. I saw two of our boys crying during the performance.
“It’s important to me that they are educated academically, but also socially in the world,” she says.
“We have Hindus and Buddhists in Chhahari. There are very strong caste systems. During the earthquake, rice would be dumped far outside a village, and if the area was within a certain caste, no one would go in there to bring it to them! That’s how bad it is.
“We had to teach our kids that they we’re all brothers and sisters,” she continued. “Now they don’t know the difference. They ask me, ‘Nanna (that’s what they call me), …why are the people fighting?’
“I try and explain it to them, but they see here that it can be different. It has them thinking.”
Walking the walk – and then some
Casey’s commitment to her cause got me thinking, as well, especially when she told me she lives in affordable housing, in a 10×20 foot room. “I used all my savings to start it [Chhahari] up,” she says. “I’ve lived the good life. I’ve traveled. I don’t need anything…
“I don’t need any more clothes. Where would I put them? I have everything I need,” she says in her matter of fact way. And this revelation absolutely shocks me. It’s so surprising that I’m sure it says something about my own priorities that I wouldn’t care to admit.
When Casey says she has given everything to Chhahari, she isn’t exaggerating. And she certainly doesn’t want to make a fuss over it. It is a choice she made and she is very content with it.
A devout Catholic, Casey brushes off my compliments and admiration. She speaks of her mission as just something that must be done, no applause, no fanfare. …It’s just about raising enough money to help “her children”, and make their world better.
Another opportunity to make a difference
“We are not free from problems,” says Casey about the Chhahari non-profit. “It is always three steps forward, one step back. The government is a hindrance. The earthquake was even worse. It was very traumatizing for our children, even though none of them were hurt.”
But so many others were. And Casey has found another way to help: prosthetics.
Because of the earthquake, Casey’s kids lost friends or had friends who became amputees. “They came to me and said, ‘Nanna, maybe we can help these children?’ And it was so…this was my impetus,” she says, again repeating her mantra, “We are going to do this right.
“A five year old child will need six to ten change-outs (of their prosthetic limbs) in their lifetime… They need rehab… The families need training to show them how to deal with these issues and injuries,” she explained. So she has partnered with a Nepalese man in Kathmandu who makes prosthetics.
She recently had a fundraiser in Corona del Mar to support this new outreach program. And of course, it circles back to Chhahari.
“I want them to be socially conscious. They’ve never been taught. These countries are so poor; the people are so poor that they turn into takers. I want them to learn to look outward,” she says.
Every child has potential and deserves a chance
She tells me about one of her children who has developed into an award-winning artist. “Every child has potential and deserves a chance,” says Christine Casey.
“If he was tending goats, this would never have happened!”
Casey is not naïve; she knows that giving 25 kids a chance isn’t going to change the world. However, as the saying goes, it has changed theirs. And who knows what happens beyond that? 25 can turn to 50, and on it goes.
Christine Casey is not stopping. “I’m 72 years old. I’m in good health. My life is Chhahari,” she says simply.
Christine Casey is a woman of modest means who set out to make a difference in the world, and does so every single day. It’s rare to meet someone willing to give everything they have for others. But she did…and still does.
The next time I’m tempted to buy something to put in my already-full-closet, I will stop and think of her. Another pair of shoes? Or the chance to make a difference somewhere? The answer should be easy.
For Christine Casey, there isn’t even a question.
To find out more about Chhahari or to make a donation go to www.chhahari.org.
News source: stunewslaguna.com