Michelle Welsch, The Longmont High School and University of Colorado graduate, came to Nepal to volunteer in a monastery she knew very little about. She left behind her steady job and luxurious lifestyle in New York City. “I had such a strong conviction. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I had to go,” she says. “I’ve never been so strongly convinced of anything before. I knew I had to follow this pull.”
Her plan was to teach English to monks in the monasteries for few weeks , make it up to Everest Base Camp to raise money for an inner city non profit and then head back to Boulder, to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. Except she didn’t leave. Her realizations and learnings in the monastery tethered her there.
Living in the monastery was the beginning of a new chapter in Michelle’s life. After spending 3 precious years there, she founded her own educational and training institution named Welsch’s small education institue, Learning House, which now helps hundreds of students a year by connecting them with international business leaders, career courses, test preparation resources, English classes and more. The center is based in Pokhara, in the Kaski District in the western part of Nepal. The Learning House is supported by Khata Life, Welsch’s registered nonprofit.
Ngawang Gurung is one of the lives changed by Welsch’s choice to stay in Nepal. Gurung had only recently learned English but was working as a math teacher in the monastery when Welsch arrived. His brother was one of the monks there. The conditions shocked and appalled Welsch. Young monks wore old, ratty shoes and their clothes were pocked with holes. The boys had sores on their heads and rotting teeth. A dentist had never visited the monastery, Welsch says.
“I watched them drag their beds into the sun and pick at the cracks with flames and sticks because they had bed bugs.Parents who don’t have resources to take care of their kids think the monastery will provide the education, food and shelter that they could not offer their son,” she says.
After observing the conditions, she felt compelled to help the needy ones. She just couldn’t walk away.
Welsch, 32, is currently writing a book about the condition of Nepal’s monasteries, woven with her personal experiences and relationships there.
Ngawang Gurung is currently the executive director at the Learning House. He is also a teacher and a student there.
“Now I can meet different people from a different part of the world and learn more about the world, and I am building myself, too,” Gurung said from Nepal via Skype. “We are helping the students, counseling and advising, and everyone knows me. I am a business owner. That’s a really good feeling. It feels better now.”
Welsch faced countless hurdles but never gave up on her dreams. She ended up getting a grant to install solar panels on her building, to provide light in the evenings when the government blacks out the city. This allows students to study after dark.
“That solar project gave me confidence that I could do meaningful work and help a community, even as an individual. I didn’t come here as part of a nonprofit. I came here as one person. The success with some of those projects showed me you can actually make a difference,” Welsch says. “But on the flip side of that, the monastery also showed me there are some things as an individual you cannot do, when some beliefs are so ancient and entrenched.”
The learning house provides free, accurate information for Nepalis about travel, studying abroad and taking tests for continued education, facts that aren’t widely available or free in Nepal. Her learning house is an oasis for students who want to learn.She painted the classrooms to look bright and cheery (much different than many traditional classrooms in the area) and organized educational field trips. The public also has access to the Learning House’s library, study center and wi-fi for free.
Learning House classes (mostly English and test prep courses) run all day Sunday through Thursday at discounted rates ($20 for six weeks), much lower than private schools, Welsch says. Classes are capped at 8.
Friday seminars are free and open to the public, featuring business people with career advice. A New York restaurateur. A Dutch travel guide. Workshops draw between six and 100 participants.
“There’s something about when you create something yourself, and you see you are helping people, and you can see the real, tangible results,” she says. “There’s always something that keeps me here.”
Like the joy on people’s faces when they get accepted into college or land a job they needed.
Plus, she says, “I like challenges.”
Welsch visits Boulder once a year to get connected to her family and friends and also to get pumped out and energised.
Today, the monastery that started Welsch’s journey has four permanent teachers and is developing a better volunteer program, she says. Health clinics occasionally visit. The administration hasn’t changed, but they are making small strides, Welsch says.