Fort Fairfield is home to a new nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women and girls in a remote mountain region in the northern tip of India.
Gary Sayers, his wife Pamela, and daughter Keely were inspired by an extraordinary entrepreneur from a small Himalayan village in Ladakh, part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, to create Our Ladakhi Sisters, an all-volunteer group to support social justice efforts for women and girls in the region.
Thinlas Chorol toured Maine this week to spread awareness of the challenges faced by Ladakhi women to promote the collaborative efforts of the Fort Fairfield-based group to help her build the first women’s shelter in Ladakh.
After stops in Portland, Bangor, Lewiston, Unity, Waterville, Camden and Bar Harbor, Chorol concludes the week with a gathering at Morning Star Art & Framing in Presque Isle at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10.
“Although she is unknown here, she is already an historic figure in Asia,” Sayers said, describing Chorol as “a powerful force working for social justice for women and girls.”
“OLS wants to help shine a light on their collaborative efforts and begin to forge some new relationships around the state.”
The Sayers family met Chorol in 2014 after working as volunteers for free health clinics in India, an experience that kindled strong affection for the gentle, friendly people and the stunning beauty of Ladakh. The expedition also introduced them to the challenges faced by students seeking an education and by humanitarian workers serving victims of abuse and poverty in remote areas.
“After much consideration, we decided to form a nonprofit to see what we could do to help,” the founders said on the OLS website. “We were very concerned about doing anything that would have unintended consequences. We felt we could best help by lending support to local organizations and their initiatives, while respecting their knowledge and decisions.”
They chose to collaborate with the Ladakhi Women’s Welfare Network, founded by Chorol in 2012. “Their work resonates with our board as we’ve worked on similar issues here at home,” Sayers said, praising the “integrity, courage and commitment to women’s rights” they observed in Chorol’s work. Other board members are Marion Davis of Kennebunkport, Lisa Clarcq of Wayne and Sarah LeClaire of Presque Isle.
Born in the Himalayan village of Takmachik, Chorol, 35, spent her childhood tending flocks with her father in the high meadows. At home in the mountains, she decided she would like to be a trekking guide but often was rejected by the male-dominated trekking agencies.
Undeterred, she became a credentialed guide through courses at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering and wilderness training at the National Outdoor Leadership School. She returned to Ladakh in 2009 and opened her own Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company. The first female-owned and operated travel company in Ladakh now employs about 30 women and promotes ecotourism in the region.
Chorol was named “Person of the Year” in 2015 by the Indian news organization The Weekend Leader and was featured in the international documentary “Women of the Mountain: Six Women That Have Risen above.” She also has received writing awards for articles such as “Beyond Conventional Tourism” and “A Trek Through Life” published in Epilogue, a current affairs journal in Jammu and Kashmir.
Yet the famous female mountain guide said her greatest achievement is her 2012 co-founding of the Ladakhi Women’s Welfare Network, which she serves as president. The current goal is construction of a much-needed women’s shelter at an estimated cost of $20,000. Long term, she envisions a learning center, a more ambitious goal requiring as much as $100,000.
“Ladakh is not like India,” Sayers said. “The place is isolated by the Himalayas. They speak their own language (Ladahki). Their schools are under-resourced. The capital (Leh) is about the size of Presque Isle.” The population of 250,000 is spread over a vast area in eastern Kashmir.
Our Ladakhi Sisters supports the social justice efforts of Chorol’s women’s network, in addition to providing scholarships, crisis housing, training opportunities and emergency assistance for women in the region.
OLS sponsors 10 girls between the ages of 5 and 21. One is in college, three are in secondary school, one disabled student receives tutoring at home and five are in primary school. Sponsorship covers the cost of tuition, two uniforms and transportation to the school, where students from remote villages stay in attached hostels.
“A little bit makes a giant difference,” Sayers said. The cost is a dollar per day for young students and $3 per day for college students. Sponsorship amounts may vary, but OLS aims to support students for at least two years.
It’s a sponsorship model Sayers hopes will interest those who have met Chorol this week, and he invites potential sponsors to contact him at email@example.com.
“We hope sponsors will build relationships with students,” he said, adding they will be able to get to know each other through mail and video exchanges.
“The key to a better life starts with an education,” the OLS mission statement said, stressing “there is a remarkable commitment to education even as many village schools struggle for the most basic resources.”
OLS also supports local efforts to establish a crisis shelter, help provide training for adults to develop skills needed to become self-sufficient and create a safety net — food, transportation, legal council, child care, clothing, social support — for families in crisis.
“Besides being the most famous female mountain guide in the Himalayas, Thinlas Chorol has also become the most important voice for social justice for women and girls in that part of Asia,” Sayers said of the woman inspiring his efforts. “Her organization is impressive by any measure and historic in nature.”
For more information, visit olscharity.org or contact Sayers at 207-551-7211, firstname.lastname@example.org or Our Ladakhi Sisters, P.O. Box 708, Fort Fairfield, ME 04742.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.