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Nigel Bray of Oregon City helps rebuild village school destoyed by earthquake

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For years, Nigel Bray has wanted to take his general contracting skills to places affected by natural disasters, but even though he contacted church groups and the Red Cross, he could not find anyone to invite him to help.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Oregon City resident Nigel Bray fulfilled his dream of helping others who were affected by a natural disaster when he helped rebuild a school nearly destroyed by an earthquake in Nepal.But then a golden opportunity arose for the Oregon City resident when his own daughter, Nianna Bray, posted on Facebook that she wanted volunteers to accompany her to Darbung, Nepal, to rebuild a school that was severely damaged by the massive earthquake that hit that country last May.

Away Inward Foundation

Nianna Bray, a 1997 graduate of Oregon City High School, is an international yoga instructor with her own business, Away Inward Retreats.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Workers remove rubble from the remains of the school in Darbung, Nepal. Students displaced by the earthquake are attending classes in temporary bamboo structures with corrugated roofs.“When we started the company, we started traveling ... and we wanted to find some way to give back, so we started doing charity work at an orphanage in Nepal and in the slums of India,” she said.

Nearly three years ago, Nianna formed a nonprofit called the Away Inward Foundation, “to have more of an impact, to gather bigger donations and to raise more funds,” she said.

Last year, while she was leading a retreat in Nepal, she met a man who runs a guide service for hikers; Darbung is his village.

“He told her that about 80 percent of the homes were affected by the earthquake, and the school was nearly destroyed,” Nigel Bray said.

Nianna decided to use her nonprofit’s network of supporters to rebuild the school, because a school “is universal; people can connect to it,” she said.

So on Oct. 28 Nigel and his daughter flew to Katmandu, Nepal, and then endured the nearly five-hour ride in the back of a pickup to Darbung.

When they and the other 10 volunteers arrived at the school an extraordinary sight greeted them — 300 students, their teachers and the village elders welcomed the group with a ceremony that was so touching Nigel said he “almost exploded into tears.”

“They had flowers and ceremonial scarves and they were cheering — it was just incredible,” he said.

Living conditions

The next day, the group began the hard work of rebuilding the school, which originally had been built from stones and mud 40 years ago.

“We tore down all the rock walls, sorted out the rocks from the debris, and carted off the debris so they could rebuild — we did all the grunt work,” Nigel said.

Meanwhile, all the students were going to classes in bamboo structures with corrugated roofs; classrooms were divided by tarps.

In the village itself, “homes were damaged and condemned, and the walls all had cracks and were falling in. People were afraid to sleep in them so they built shacks out back to sleep in at night,” he said.

The villagers also do not have running water in their homes, but instead go to concrete water stations where the water runs day and night.

“They come and fill up their buckets, take showers, wash their clothes,” Nigel said.

“The biggest problem is that they have no insurance, and there is no government help. The monsoon didn’t have enough rain, and their crops failed,” he said.

In addition, Nigel said, “India has closed the border for transportation of goods and fuel, so they can’t get gas for heat or their cookers. It is all stopped at the border for political reasons.”

And yet, he said, “I never heard one of them complaining about their situation.”

Communication, inspiration

Nigel returned from Nepal on Dec. 5, and said the most challenging aspect of his volunteer work was communication with the villagers.

“I wanted to talk to them, and several people wanted to talk to us. We did have an interpreter from time to time, but when people invited us in for tea, we couldn’t talk to them, so we smiled at each other,” he said.

“I wanted to know how they thought; I wanted to understand their feelings,” he added.

Nigel did connect with quite a few people in the village, and one of them, Ghita, was an inspiration to him.

“Before the earthquake, she had a tiny restaurant in the front of her house. But the house was so badly damaged that now she only has one room, and she can’t cook in her house. She lives in a small wooden and bamboo shack with her daughter and daughter-in-law,” Nigel said.

Undaunted, the woman has set up an outdoor cookstove on what is left of her front porch and is running the restaurant again, with two tables on the porch, he said.

Nigel said he will always remember the ceremony he experienced on the first day and said the villagers made the group feel “extremely welcome.”

Nianna noted that this kind of volunteer work is “one of the most amazing experiences anyone can have.” She added that she will be recruiting volunteers to go back to Nepal in March and October.

But this last trip was especially memorable for her because of her father’s presence.

It was thrilling for her, seeing her father “smiling and enjoying these simpler moments; seeing his friendships with people without language. Seeing the way he was with kids. He was a really big support for everybody; for kids, for the volunteers and for me,” she said.

Helping children

Members of the community can help support the effort to rebuild the school in Nepal by dropping off donations at Oregon City’s Live Edge Salon and Local Artistry. Sydnie Bray, a 2008 graduate of OCHS and Nianna’s younger sister, owns the salon along with her father, who is a woodworker. His handmade furniture pieces are for sale in the salon.

The salon held two fundraisers for the Away Inward Foundation this year, raising $1,500.

Nigel would like to encourage others to donate to the foundation, adding that the most important aspect of his daughter’s nonprofit is “they spend very little on administration; almost 100 percent of the donations go to the people that they’re helping.”

Fast facts

Learn more about Away Inward Retreats, at awayinward.com.

Learn more about the Away Inward Foundation at childrenweserve.org. To volunteer to travel to Nepal, click on Get Involved, and then click on Volunteering.

Monetary donations may be dropped off at Live Edge Salon and Local Artistry, 613 Railroad Ave., Oregon City.

Contact salon owner Sydnie Bray at 971-221-9819.