Olga Murray, an 83-year-old widow with no children of her own, always has wanted to work with young people. After a long career in law and investigative journalism, the opportunity to do that presented itself when she visited Nepal's Himalayas with some friends.
"I was almost 60 years old and I went into the mountains, and I was just hooked by the children that I saw," she says, recalling that even though they were poor and dressed in rags, they were happy and full of life. "They all wanted to do one thing, and that was [to] go to school. Most Nepali children did not go to school at that time, and I just had this sudden flash, 'Okay, I know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I am going to send Nepali children to school.'"
A foundation for improving youngsters' lives
Murray immediately got to work, using her own money to help disabled Nepalese children get an education - providing them not only with scholarships but also school supplies and uniforms. As the number of scholarships grew, Murray realized that her effort needed more structure, so in 1990, she founded the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation. Last year, NYOF gave scholarships to more than 4,000 children.
Murray's second visit to Nepal resulted in a broken leg, and a second mission for her foundation. While Murray was in a hospital recuperating, she noticed how malnourished many of the children brought in for treatment were. So NYOF established nutritional rehabilitation homes attached to hospitals.
Five weeks of hospitalization for the child and education for the mother at a rehab center costs about $350. Murray calls it a good bargain.
"When I see a baby come in half-dead, literally, you know, and not able to even react to anything - just catatonic or crying all the time and looking as though they're going to [die] any minute - and then you go back the next week, and they're starting to look [healthier] a little bit. The next week they're starting to smile, and in an average of five weeks they're running around like crazy and they're happy and healthy. That's pretty thrilling, too."
A role model for giving back
Santosh Basnet met Murray when he was 9 years old, a street child who'd had his injured right arm amputated. Murray took him to one of two boarding houses she had set up for orphaned, abandoned and needy Nepalese boys and girls. Santosh, now 27, grew up there, learned English, got his high school education and is now getting an MBA at a California college.
"I wouldn't be here essentially had she not found me," Santosh says. "I don't even know if I would exist. Maybe I would have ended up in the street. I don't know what would have happened. I don't even want to think about it."
He refers to Murray as his "fairy godmother" and calls her "Mom."
Many of the children Murray has rescued are intent on giving back, and Santosh is no different. He and some fellow students from Nepal started a program to help Nepalese refugees with their basic needs as they get settled in the United States and set up a Web site for other international students at U.S. colleges.
"We need more people like her on this Earth," he says. "She's an amazing human being. Who says one person can't make a difference?"
Saving girls with a piglet
Murray's latest mission focuses on young Nepalese girls. Poor families in rural villages often sell their young daughters into bonded labor for $50 a year. Murray started a program to give those families livestock which they could raise and sell to earn a comparable income - without selling their children's labor.
"Not one penny changes hands in this program," Murray explains. "We give the family a piglet or goat. We give the girl all her school supplies, her school uniform, and pay her school fees. Our aim was not just to rescue the girls but to eradicate the practice, to turn the community against the practice."
So far, more than 4,000 girls have been able to stay in their homes and go to school.
Murray knew that her program was successful the day several thousand traditionally passive and submissive village girls, who would never think of going against their fathers, demonstrated for their rights with a march and rally. Murray says she proudly walked side by side with 'her' girls.
"I looked around and there they were, chanting and raising their hands, shouting these slogans in Tharu [the local language]," she says, admitting, "I was shouting with them and raising my hands, and I had no idea what I was saying but I was saying to myself: 'You go, girl, go!' It was wonderful. It was really thrilling."
Murray splits her time between her home in Sausalito, California, and a home in Kathmandu. She says that no matter where she is, her priority is fundraising to keep her projects going. Her annual budget is now just over $1.5 million. Nepalese law forbids Murray to directly implement her projects, so a staff of locals carries out her programs.
A mission guided by justice and kindness
Retired plastic surgeon Dr. Angelo Capozzi is the co-founder and medical director of Rotaplast International, a nonprofit that reconstructs cleft lip and palate deformities for children in 18 countries, including Nepal. He met Murray 17 years ago, when she brought a burn victim to him. Capozzi has watched NYOF grow through the years and says what Murray has accomplished is monumental.
"I think she's a living saint. You don't have to be in her presence for a very, very long time to appreciate the passion that she has for what she does and the compassion for the girls and the boys she helps," Capozzi says.
In her lifelong quest to help those who need it most, Murray says she always has been guided by two principles: justice and kindness.
"If you can marry those two, it's the best of all possible worlds," she insists. "And it's possible to do that in Nepal and possible to do that in your life. I have so many older friends who say to me, 'Oh, I am so unhappy. My children are grown. My grandchildren are grown. Nobody needs me anymore. What can I do with my life? And you always seem to be happy.' And I say, 'Go out and do something for somebody and see how you feel.'"
She says the last 25 years of her life have been the happiest because she found this cause.
"I get so much more from those kids than I give to them. It's just such a joy, a privilege to transform the lives of children."
Over the past 25 years, Murray has transformed the lives of an estimated 225,000 Nepalese children, rescuing them from lives of misery and need, providing them with security, education and love. What keeps her going, she says, is seeing how 'her' children blossom, as well as knowing that there is so much more for NYOF to do.