You can’t climb mountains and avoid substantial risk. You can’t climb mountains and lose your focus or determination. So what lessons can we learn from a mountain climber who also happens to lead an international aid organization?
Adventurer and philanthropist Jim Nowak spoke about risk, focus, determination and international aid when he visited Savannah in January for the Mountain Film Festival on Tour. As the founder of the Dzi Foundation, he often visits remote parts of Nepal.
“It’s a two to five day walk from the nearest road,” he says of the eastern Nepalese regions where his Colorado-based organization works, mostly building schools, toilets, drinking water systems and bridges through private donations and grants.
“So all these materials – hundreds of thousands of pounds of concrete, roofing tin, piping and rebar – it’s all carried in on people’s backs or on mule trains,” he says. “It’s really where the services are needed and where the government has no support to these folks.”
Nowak founded the group in 1998 after visiting the region for mountaineering. Eastern Nepal is home to Mt. Everest and a stomping ground for Western alpinists. There, he saw a run-down home for girls in danger of prostitution. The home was collapsing.
Saving that shelter was Nowak’s first fundraising effort in Nepal. But to say anything about it or what came next, the Dzi Foundation, involved risk would understate the challenge. How do you help people in a faraway land and know you’re doing good?
“Everything is built by the community, which creates tremendous ownership, responsibility and durability in those communities,” he says. “There are no volunteers that go there to work. We don’t bring any trekkers over there.”
They train, they ask, they audit. They hold themselves, their workers and their 26 in-country staff members accountable to the people they serve. Which brings us to focus. When you have focus, a slip isn’t going to throw you off – even if that slip is tectonic.
In 2015, an earthquake killed more than 8,000 people in Nepal. More than a half million people lost their homes. In the disaster’s wake came aftershocks, some just as deadly as the first. And then the monsoon rains set in. Some of the area still bears the scars.
“When you walk through the city of Katmandu, literally you’ll go around the corner and there’ll be a poorly constructed building in rubble right next to buildings that are standing,” Nowak says. “It’s maddeningly random.”
After the quake, Nowak remained focused. While the international “crisis caravan” rolled in and out, the Dzi Foundation maintained a laser-like commitment to its way of business. Perhaps it’s a slower and more deliberate way. But they’re in Nepal for the long haul.
“We had 69 community meetings in our whole project area and asked individuals what they needed,” Nowak says. “And the foremost was tarps. So we delivered over 3,000 tarps… And then the focus, their choice, was ‘We want our kids back in school.’”
So these Nepalese communities themselves, aided by the Dzi Foundation, rebuilt over 40 schools. The new schools were built stronger and more durable than the old ones. Such a disaster, coupled with bureaucracy and inexperience, might have crippled other efforts.
Which brings me to my last point, determination. There must be something about mountains that stiffens a person’s resolve. Nowak has been going at this now – helping the Nepalese people – for almost 20 years. Why is he so determined about Nepal?
“The beauty of the people, the beauty of the landscape, the resilience of the people, the strength of these people,” he says. “Just the joy, the humor that they have. They have incredible hardships and then they pick themselves up.”
I’m glad Nowak got to talk about the Dzi Foundation, named for a type of traditional jewelry, in Savannah. We don’t have mountains or earthquakes. We’re much richer in monetary terms. But we have our own issues that could use his mountaineering spirit.
The Mountain Film Festival brought him to Savannah and to this podcast. They’ll be back in January with another three-day celebration of unimaginable triumphs in human society and in nature. Find them at this website. Read their latest brochure here.