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From Whistler to the Himalayas


Resident seeks clothes and education materials for people of northern India

It only took twenty-three minutes for Whistler’s Verdell Jessup to make a life-changing decision to board a plane to India and spend two months volunteering to help the mountain people in the far north.

The momentous change was sparked by two incredible movies shared with her by a friend.

The short films, by Canmore filmmaker Pat Morrison, told the story of a remarkable woman by the name Cynthia Hunt. She is an American who has spent the last 10 years teaching health, hygiene and education to the people of Ladakh.

"I just knew after seeing (the films) that this was something that I’d like to do," said Jessup.

"What she’s doing is simply amazing."

Jessup saw the films while working towards her degree in adventure tourism from the University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops.

Her prior experiences include a work term in the Patagonia Mountains of Chile, an adventure race in Vietnam, and various adventure races in Canada. In her adventure tourism studies at school, she became interested in community development, and one day hopes to combine her two interests in order to help diversify the economy of underdeveloped areas.

While in Ledakh, Jessup plans visit remote villages with Hunt, who created a small non-government organization, called HEALTH Inc. (Health, Environment, and Literacy in the Himalayas).

With its remote villages sitting has high as 3,000 metres, separated by mountain passes that are sometimes more than 5,000 metres, the Ladakh area is an isolated corner of the world. The people are incredibly self-reliant, but open to education and development.

While they have enough to eat, nobody has ever taught them how to brush their teeth, wash their hands, or protect their clean water and fragile environment. As a result, there are a large number of premature deaths in Ladakh, and India as a whole, that can be related back to health and hygiene.

One of the memorable scenes in Morrison’s film is of Hunt teaching a group of monks how to brush their teeth. It was obvious that they had never seen or used toothbrushes before and had to be taught exactly how to do it, from applying toothpaste, to spitting.

To get her ideas across, Hunt tours the area extensively to discover exactly what the needs are, then produces books that deal with those needs. She created a character named Padma who lives in the same part of the world, wears the traditional clothing of the region, and teaches children and adult about issues like hygiene, nutrition and life skills as a way to reach the people in her books.

One book is called Padma and the Dirty Dog, which stresses the importance of hand washing.

HEALTH Inc. also trains rural school teachers, essentially teaching the Ladakhs to teach themselves. It also provides teaching supplies and tools.

Jessup has already committed to several projects.

The first is a review of the life skills sciences programme. She will evaluate what works and what doesn’t in the program, and how best to integrate the changes into teacher training.

Another project looks at the needs of children and women when it comes to health issues, including reproductive health. The findings will be incorporated into a larger adult literacy programme.

Canadians are welcome in the area, says Jessup, who will spend some time at the local Canadian School. The facility is the only year-round school in the entire Ladakh region, which has a population of 250,000.

She’s not going empty handed, either. Jessup is busy collecting a few necessities for the Ladakh people to bring along on her trip and she still needs more including:

* Children’s baseball caps – no commercial logos, if possible.

* Children’s wool socks – it can get pretty cold there in the winter months

* Educational materials – Copies of Owl and Chickadee magazine, school books at about the Grade 6 level, and if any teachers have a science curriculum available from past years, that would also be helpful.

She will bring the supplies with her, at her expense, so she asks people to keep weight in mind when making their donations.

"I know how incredibly generous people in Whistler can be, but I do have limited space," said Jessup.

" If I do get a lot of stuff, I’ll mail it along."

Jessup is also financing the trip herself, and would gladly accept any donations to help her cover her own costs, which she estimates at around $8,000, not including lost wages.

You can make the donations at Whistler Backroads, 4262 Village Stroll (by Affinity Sports), Escape Route in the Whistler MarketPlace, and at Millennium Place.

Students at Alta Lake School are also collecting items.

The boxes will be in place from this Friday, June 27, until Wednesday, July 2. She leaves on July 3.