My journey began in 2005 at the age of 19. During my final year of high school in suburban New Jersey, I decided to put my college plans on hold and travel the world on a gap year. Over the course of my gap year, I lived in Fiji, New Zealand and eventually ended up in North Eastern India, interning at an organization that worked with Nepali refugee children who had fled a ten year long civil war in Nepal. Through my internship, I became good friends with a Nepali woman named Sunita and her uncle, Tope Malla who would later become my cofounder. I decided to return to Nepal with them when the border between India and Nepal reopened.
We traveled for four days before reaching their village and, unfortunately, upon arrival we discovered that their home and family were no longer there. We decided to continue our journey and we trekked down to a city called Surkhet. On our way, we began to notice child porters and children working as day laborers breaking rocks to sell to construction sites. We continued to see them even after reaching Surkhet and eventually came across a little girl named Hima. At the time she was 7-years-old and spent her days as a child laborer breaking rocks in a dry riverbed.
Everyday when I would see her, she would always smile at me and say, “namaste didi” which means hello sister in Nepali.
Seeing her made me reflect on my own childhood and how different it was from hers. It made me think about the education, healthcare, shelter and nutritious meals I had access to growing up. I realized that I had the ability to make it easier for Hima’s family to send her to school, and so I decided to do this by paying for her tuition, uniform and books. After I helped with Hima’s education costs, I wanted to help more children. I thought, if I can help one, why not five? Why not 10? My dream was to walk across that dry riverbed and not see a single child laborer.
I began working closely with Sunita’s uncle, Tope. He grew up as an orphan in Nepal and was unable to attend school because he had to work and support his siblings. Together, Tope and I were determined to make a bigger impact in Surkhet. I began learning Nepali so I could meet with community leaders and, together, Tope and I began reading and researching about poverty, education, empowerment, orphan care, and anything we thought would help us to improve the lives of children in Nepal.
How our project evolved
After Tope and I began sending children to school, we soon realized that there were some children who needed more than just access to education. Some of the children we encountered were orphaned and needed access to basic necessities like food and shelter. That’s when Tope and I, with the help of fundraising and money I had saved, decided to open the Kopila Valley Children’s home in 2008. At this time we were caring for children in the home and sending them to school, but we knew we wanted to do more. In 2010 we received a small grant to lease land and develop our first school, ‘the Bamboo school’. We wanted to create a community school where children would have access to education in addition to nutritious food, healthcare, and safety. We became one of the first schools in the region to officially ban corporal punishment in the classroom. We began building curriculum, developing teachers, hiring a principal and school leaders. We created an after school program and a healthy school culture.
A few years after the school was founded we began to outgrow our bamboo facility just as the end of our lease approached. Luckily, Tope, had the foresight to save money for a larger piece of property nearby. This was the moment when we began focusing on our longer-term goal of building a better and more sustainable facility. We knew that we needed the new campus to be earthquake proof, safe, sustainable, durable and easy to maintain. This led us to the drawing board for the blueprints of what would later become the Kopila Valley Green School.
The Kopila Valley Green School was designed and built slowly over the course of five years, giving us time to observe and interact with the space before rushing in to construction. The result is an integrated, appropriate learning environment where our students can learn to love and live well in their place.
To build the campus, we proudly hired a 100% local Nepali labor force. Nepali staff members were hired to support the local economic growth in the Surkhet region. And by hiring locally for every project, whether construction or education, the Nepali staff had the proper knowledge to complement a carefully planned infrastructure design or curriculum, respectively.
The Himalayan Permaculture Centre served as a major partner supporting with valuable training that all our management staff completed to use as best practices for the more than 250 Nepali workers.
The school and its technology
The Kopila Valley Green School takes advantage of several sources of renewable energy. Our 25.2kW solar photovoltaic system supplies more than the necessary amount of electricity needed to run our campus, and the excess is sold to the national power grid. Our primary source of energy for cooking is also solar, this time in the form of a parabolic trough concentrated solar power system. On a day with sufficient sunlight, of which we have around 280 in our area, our entire lunchtime meal for 500 people can be cooked with this system. As a backup, we have a six cubic meter biogas digester that produces methane fuel and is supplied by the campus restrooms and our own cow manure.
Our main source of water for most purposes is rain. We’ve constructed an underground holding tank with a capacity of 300,000 liters that is fed by all of our campus roofs. This water is then filtered by bio-sand filters, carbon filter, and 0.01 micron filter so that it is potable. We also treat and reuse grey and black water. The grey water, which comes from hand washing and dishwashing areas on campus, is filtered by vertical flow constructed wetlands and polishing filters so that it can be used to flush the campus toilets. The black water, from all our toilets, first enters an anaerobic baffled reactor, where solids and liquids are separated. The solids are then pumped to the biogas digester and the liquids flow by gravity to a horizontal flow constructed wetland. This treated blackwater is then used to irrigate non-edible landscaping. As for stormwater, the majority of our walkways and gathering spaces are permeable, allowing most of the rainfall to percolate into the soil and recharge our groundwater resources.
The majority of our buildings are made from rammed earth, which is made by ramming a mixture of clay, sand, and in some cases cement, within a form. The materials for these buildings all came from nearby sources, and the thermal qualities of rammed earth, coupled with a building layout and orientation that maximizes passive ventilation, eliminated the need for mechanical heating and cooling systems.
The food source for the Kopila Valley Green School also serves as a significant opportunity for the organization to support economic regeneration each year. Food is sourced through local farmers through a cooperative that serves as one of five Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) in Nepal. Considering the large impact that our organization has on the cooperative, Kopila Valley is helping link all five PGSs to better source and sell crops to one another and facilitate trade.
The school today
Today, our campus is teaching 400 students and 100 staff to practice a zero waste policy. All biodegradable waste is composted on site, and recyclable materials are segregated and sent to collectors. By teaching students waste management at a young age, the importance of plastic free lifestyles will extend to their spheres of influence.
The Kopila Valley Green School is the school of our dreams and our goal is to work towards an open source model to inspire other global organizations to replicate and create sustainable, green, top-quality curriculum schools for children of vulnerable backgrounds in various communities around the world. We created a green school for all of us.
For more info on Kopila Valley Green School, see Georgina-Kate Adams' articles in PM103 and PM104.
BlinkNow (https://blinknow.org) was one of the 20 finalists for the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize.