Jan Sprague had sorrow in her voice when she pointed to a picture of dozens of smiling Nepalese children standing in front of the schoolhouse that her Santa Margarita-based nonprofit group built eight years ago in the now earthquake-stricken region.
“We don’t know if they’re alive,” she said. “We are just heartbroken thinking of all our friends.”
The death toll from the magnitude-7.8 quake that struck April 25 has reached about 7,000, according to the Associated Press. More than 130,000 houses were destroyed, while whole villages are in ruins with residents in desperate need of temporary shelters against the rain and cold.
Sprague’s group, HANDS, which stands for Humanitarian Acts in Nepal Developing Schools, was founded in 2008 by her son, Danny Chaffin. He volunteered in an orphanage in Nepal during a break from college when he was 19 and told his parents when he returned that he wanted to build schools there.
HANDS has raised money to build four schools and two libraries in Nepal, an impoverished nation with mountain villages spread throughout the Himalayas. The schools, which cost from $6,000 to $8,000 each, are typically four-room structures made with concrete and plaster and supplied with books for 45 to 80 children. The group also helps support educators at each site, where a teacher’s salary is about $50 a month.
“We’re thinking we lost two of our schools and one of our libraries,” Sprague said Wednesday.
Another of the group’s schools on the nation’s west side is unaccounted for, but contacts there say it may still be standing, and the hope is that villagers have taken refuge in it.
HANDS schools and libraries on the east side of the country in the Pokhara area were not damaged by the quake.
Sprague, a second-grade teacher at Mary Buren Elementary School in Guadalupe, was in Nepal three weeks ago to plan the construction of a fifth school.
“Then I came back, and a short while later, this earthquake happened,” she said from her home last week.
Her friends in the village of Dharka, near the quake’s epicenter and where the group’s first school was built, tell Sprague that the village is in shambles.
“Hundreds dead — only four homes standing, and the school is gone,” she said. “I’m worried about those hundreds of lives. And what about the others with no food, no water? The injured lying around waiting for help?”
The organization’s board of directors has worked to find ways to aid in the relief effort. After learning that much of the country is without power, the group has campaigned to bring 1,000 solar lights to Nepal to help razed villages where many people are trying to survive outdoors “and have no light available to them of any kind,” Sprague said.
Each light costs $10 and is made of green plastic with a bendable neck and a solar-powered base created at UC Santa Barbara that Sprague said holds a charge for weeks and puts out “this really great beam of light.”
“People are living in the dark once the sun goes down and there’s no light,” Sprague said. “Perhaps a little light would give them some comfort with everything else going on.”
The lights would also be a benefit, she said, because families build fires at night, which can be dangerous in the current conditions.
Local Rotary clubs have donated lights to the group over the years. Such groups already have pledged about 200 lights to the campaign, and 200 additional lights were purchased from donations.
The group plans to ship the lights in batches of 100 to its Nepalese team. Additional lights will be carried over by a volunteer as soon as commercial flights are accepted into the region. The organization’s Nepalese contacts will be waiting to distribute them to villagers. “We love Nepal. They’re amazing people there and kind and generous and so grateful,” Sprague said. “The children are so hungry for education and crave literacy. We have made just the most wonderful friends there,” she said. “And now they need us more than ever.”