Women’s Center Graduation
Monday, May 19, 2014
On Saturday we graduated 60 inspiring women from our 10 month training and empowerment course at The Kopila Valley Women’s Center. It was a wonderful day to celebrate an incredible year. I can’t believe all that we managed to squeeze into this past year at our center and just how fast the time flew by.
To be honest, we started the center out of desperation. At school, our student’s caregivers were struggling and by proxy so were our students. I’ve learned a lot here in Nepal over the past few years and if there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that if a child has a strong caregiver in their life, whether it be a mother, aunt, big sister, grandmother, or some sort of advocate, they are far more likely to succeed.
On the practical side of things, we have a ton of school uniforms, clothing, and backpacks, that we purchase on a monthly basis and because I always source locally I thought it made a lot of sense to try sourcing our work to women within the Kopila community who really needed it! It was difficult for me to watch women struggle to have their basic needs and rights met and I felt in my core with some confidence, community, skills, and some income, they could get back on their feet.
This year was our pilot project. I thought we would start small with a handful of women but at our first informational gather we had over 100 women show up. The interest blew me out of the water. We jumped right in without totally knowing what we were getting into. We learned a lot as we went along. We brought in amazing people to help us and modeled after other successful projects we read about online. We worked together. We saw a problem and tried our hardest to make it better. Believe it or not, I didn’t have a lick of funding for our women’s center when we started building but little by little so many people stepped up and made it happen. We applied for a really competitive grant from Dining for Women. Cara and Ruth helped me so much on the application and we got it off just in time. A few months later we got on a Skype call late one late night in the women’s center and the Dining for Women ladies broke the that news that we won! I needed a film crew in that moment to capture all the cheering. From that day forward DFW became our official partners and everything got a whole lot less scary.
Weeks later our Women’s Center Fellow, Magdalena and her husband Brendan left their life in NYC and moved here, pretty much at the drop of a hat. They arrived and moved into a little cottage up the road they dubbed “married mountain” because they were newlyweds moving to Nepal. Brendan just told me the other night that when he proposed to Magdalena, he proposed with a locket and inside of the locket was the word “Nepal.” At the time they had no idea they would end up here specifically, but somehow they ended up here at Kopila Valley and I feel so so lucky.
Magdalena ran that center like such a boss. She was a dynamo in there every single day and the team she hired and surrounded herself with was awesome. So much of the success in that center was HER hard work, smarts and sheer determination. It’s very sad that she's leaving tomorrow and we’re going to miss her but she’s really helped us shape a plan and a curriculum to take this place in the years to come.
The past ten months have been packed to the max with literacy courses, business classes, parenting classes, a course on human rights, as well as goal setting, confidence building and counseling workshops. Our women graduated with certificates as qualified seamstresses ready to enter the work force. They learned to set up and repair machines, make school uniforms, pajamas, oven mitts and aprons, along with all kinds of Nepali traditional clothing, and then fashion items like a wrap dress, headbands, blouses and maxis. During the winter they learned to knit and crochet with Emily and in the spring our friends Cara and Zenda led a workshop in making their own sanitary napkins. Many of these women who had never held a pencil or sat in a classroom learned to write their names and read basic nepali. They learned numbers and math and how to build savings and start a bank account. The youngest in our class was 13 and our oldest was 60. It’s never ever too late.
All of these accomplishments make me feel proud but believe it or not the single thing that made my eyes tear up was watching the friendships they formed. They were all mixed castes, mixed ages, and came from all different backgrounds. The way they came together in support of one another was incredible. Together, they created a space of trust and security. They smiled and laughed and joked around constantly while they were here. I’ve seen them have each others’ backs, care for one another’s children, and lean on each other when they needed too. I could tell a hundred personal stories and examples that make my heart sing. After nearly a year of having these women in our home each and every day, I know if I need them at any given hour of any given day, they'll be right here by my side and they’ll be there for each other. That is really not something you can teach or preach or make happen at the snap of your fingers but someway, somehow it happened all on it’s own.
They are not the same women who walked through our doors last year. When we started our center we realized the thing our women needed the most was a dose of confidence. They needed to believe in themselves, to feel like they were worthy and they mattered. Magdalena told me one day that she felt like some of the women were never asked to have an opinion about anything EVER. In our initial interviews we asked them “what do you want for you life? what are your goals?” And they would stare back at us with a blank look. At first it was kind of frustrating but then we realized that they'd been living hand to mouth in survival mode for so long that they had never stopped to think of an alternative. They needed to learn how to dream again.
When we were just starting out, Ginnette from Purple Lily came and taught them to do these "power poses" where all the women stood up straight with their hands on their hips and their eyes closed and repeated positive affirmations again and again for two minutes straight at the end of every session. “I am strong.” “I am beautiful.” “I am powerful.” “I am a good mother.” Watching them all on stage on Saturday with that confidence and positivity oozing out of them, I could tell they believe those words now.
The graduation included dancing, inspiring talks, and a hilariously funny skit put on by the women. There was a fashion show (runway style) where our 8th, 9th, and 10th graders modeled all of the designs and clothing made in our center. There were prizes and superlatives awarded to the women for outstanding attendance, leadership, and most improvement. When the women got up on stage to receive their graduation certificates Celine Deon started playing and I totally lost it. During my speech when I told the story of how and why we started the center I got to the part where I wanted to address the women directly but I got two sentences in and I just couldn’t finish. I started crying and then THEY all started crying and I had to stop mid-talk and hand the microphone over to Rachna, our literacy teacher/ emcee. It’s the first time I’ve ever not been able to finish a speech.
Even though it’s sad that we don’t see them here at the house every single day anymore, I know that this is the end of one chapter and the very beginning of another. What’s next you ask? WELL, I’m so excited to announce that we just signed a three year lease and we are officially launching our very own Kopila Store in downtown Surkhet!!! Some of the women we’ve trained will manage it and work on production, while others are planning to go out and start businesses of their own. We’re hoping to start with a local market and at some point be able to sell things abroad too. We’re focusing the next 2-3 months this summer on getting moved into the store, setting up shop, and working on product development! We sold some of our items from the training at graduation this weekend and there was a mad rush! Everyone wanted the wrap-around maxi dress and the pajamas sold like hotcakes.
As for the center, we have literally hundreds of inquiries from local women asking if they can apply. We’ll open up our next semester in the fall but as not to flood the market with more seamstresses we’ll be doing our next course focusing on WEAVING with the hopes that one day we can produce our own fabrics.
Like I always say, there is still so much to do and the future is exciting. I’m excited to watch these women start the next chapter of their lives. I’m excited to train more women. I’m excited about the prospects of starting our very first little business. I have to channel myself back to my lemonade stand selling days :)
I’m grateful that my children continue to be surrounded by such strong and beautiful women. That’s what I always dreamed of for Kopila and that dream keeps coming true. Thank you for your support, your investment, and for constantly cheering us on! We couldn’t have done this without YOU, especially you Dining for Women Chapter ladies! Congratulations to our Women’s Center Inaugural Class of 2071!!!! You did it and we could not be more proud.