I believe that the core of the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation (TCEF) story is about the empathy that individual people in the West have for Tibet and Tibetans. One reason to share this story is that we are marking our 25th anniversary this year, but perhaps even more importantly, I wanted to share it for inspiration. I’ve been sad, other Tibetans have despaired that somehow the world has forgotten us, forgotten that we still exist tenuously as refugees in exile, that we are not receiving the attention that will bring our plight into global awareness. The immense love and support we’ve received from our founders, sponsors, and supporters are sources of inspiration. It conveys very clearly that, although governments may not care or have compulsions not to act, ordinary Americans do care – care enough to put their energy and money where their hearts are.
I’m writing this as I remember it, acknowledging and knowing that I may miss some details. Ideally, I would love to record the recollections of every person who has supported us in any shape or form because, really, TCEF is built on that very support. Even for the ones I’m able to mention, I know that, no matter how I put it, I would lack in generosity compared to what the foundation and the Tibetans truly owe you. But this is what I remember:
In the mid-1970’s, when the country of India was under a national emergency proclaimed by Prime minister Indira Gandhi, the intrepid VJ Supera somehow found her way to the Tibetan refugee settlement of Clement Town in North India. Richard and Cathy Bayer, who were sponsoring some monks in a monastery there, accompanied her. VJ will tell you with a characteristic nonchalant giggle that it wasn’t more than another of her post-hippie days’ vacation, but that trip and those early connections laid the seeds of TCEF.
Six years later, she returned to Clement Town with her sister India Supera. India already had the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Helena, MT, and, in those years, she led tours to special sites in India. There are a couple of theories about why India did bring that first group to Clement Town: the obvious one is that VJ told her about this quaint and beautiful place, the monks, the monasteries, and about the peace and Shanti there. But I would like to think that it might have been our collective karma because that trip connected us, it expanded to a group who created TCEF, and it gave us meaning and purpose for all these years. If VJ’s journey in 1975 carried the seeds, this trip in 1981 firmly laid the foundations of TCEF.
That special connection to India began with a knock on my door. It was my next-door neighbor Gendun Lama. He had a broad smile and seemed genuinely happy that morning. He quickly told me that there was a group of foreign tourists looking for someone who spoke a little English. Gendun was always a kind neighbor, and I was happy to oblige him and to do something different from my routine day. I had no idea that I was about to meet a person who would change my life.
In those days, we did not have any guesthouses in the Tibetan settlement. One of the monasteries hosted them, pitched colorful Tibetan tents, and I believe the group had a great time. We toured the settlement, visited the monasteries and the little school where I worked. I was happy to spend time, tell them whatever I knew, and to translate for them.
You must remember my life was very different; all our lives were different then. Many Tibetan families were really poor. I was a teacher and not in the nonprofit sector at all. But I knew this family in real need, and there was India, so transparently kind…I could almost sense that she wanted to help. Somehow I found the courage to approach her about this family and, even before I had completed my sentence, she said yes. So India then became the very first sponsor I ever found!
The next year India was bringing a group to Ladakh and she asked if I might want to join her. In her conversation, she talked about Ladakh having a Buddhist culture and how I might be helpful. I believed that, but I also think that she invited me to talk to the group about the Tibetans, the Tibetan children, and their needs to see if there were people in the group who might want to help. That Ladakh trip was magical for me. I still remember details of this tour long after I’ve forgotten others much more recent. We did not have much money as Tibetan refugees and all of my travels were rough – local buses and the cheapest of trains. I don’t think I had ever stayed in a hotel before. Suddenly, I found myself in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel at Janpath, New Delhi, and I was pinching myself. This was a world that I had seen on television but never dared to dream that I would experience. So you can imagine how excited I would be and how memorable this trip was. But this relative luxury is not the only reason why it was extraordinary.
It felt wonderful to be treated kindly. At the hotel in Delhi, on the bus to Ladakh and just about everywhere, people treated the group so kindly and with so much respect. Odyssey International, the tour company that India worked with, sent a young man called Abdul to take care of the group. Every request from India or other tour members was met with those two beautiful words, “No problem”, that sometimes became three, “No problem, madam.”
Don’t get me wrong; when we Tibetans came into exile, the Indians were amazingly kind to us all. As a nation, they had been independent for just about a dozen or so years. Many of them were trying to find their own feet. Most of them were not rich, yet they welcomed close to a hundred thousand Tibetans with no animosity. Nevertheless, we were refugees and dirt poor. I was just not used to the level of courtesy and kindness that the support staff extended to the group. It felt wonderful!
Although we did not know it then, we may have taken another baby step towards the birth of TCEF on that tour. Following India’s lead, I did speak to the group about children and families who needed help and got them in wholesome measure. I met some wonderful folks, kind folks who helped Tibetan families for many years. Several of them became friends and I stayed in touch with them for many years. I even got to visit some of them when the next big miracle happened in 1986.
That year, India invited me to visit the United States! You cannot imagine how huge this was for me. It was a different world at that time. Tibetans, like myself, were struggling to survive, not dreaming of traveling to America! My joy at this invitation was dampened somewhat when travel agencies and even our own Tibetan Bureau at New Delhi told me that a US visa for a 29-year-old Tibetan with zero bank balance is a long shot, at the very best. Yet, at the US consulate in New Delhi, it did not even take half an hour for the kind visa officer to grant me my first US visa. India’s fantastic invitation may have clinched it for me when she wrote that I had shown them the Himalayas and now they were keen to show me the Rockies!
I landed in Seattle, where Shaun and Joanne Taylor welcomed me with traditional Tibetan greeting scarves. They soon drove me over to Helena, MT, where I spent my first days at the Red Ghetto with Aunty VJ Supera. VJ soon introduced me to her circle of friends, and two of them, Roy Andes and Mark Holiday, became life-long friends. Both of them subsequently visited me back in India with their spouses. As the story unfolds, you’ll see how Roy became an integral part of the TCEF story. Through Roy, I met another fantastic person – the late Bill Wilmot, who became one of TCEF’s founders. Bill was a great friend of Tibet and TCEF. He used his love and passion to rope in support from his family and friends. Both his wife Melanie and daughter Carina became TCEF sponsors and board members. Carina was also our first overseas volunteer. His friend, Dr. Thomas Frentz, has been one of TCEF’s oldest and most lasting sponsors and has supported many children for over 20 years. This pattern of networking through friendship, where VJ introduced me to Roy, and Roy to Bill, and Bill to his circle of family and friends, is how I made those first amazing friends who became the backbone of TCEF. Mark, now a successful businessman, has continued to support us over all these years.
It was July, and the Feathered Pipe Ranch at Montana was magical – like a postcard of Western places I had seen in India. I had a wonderful week or so there and then India contacted other friends from our Ladakh trip for me to visit. I was passed on from one friend to another. It’s now many years and I’m not confident I’m remembering all of them, but here is what I do remember: I think I went back to the Seattle area to visit Barbara and Louise and then to Boise, Idaho to visit another amazing friend, Sydney Johnson. I think I even made it to California and met Ruth and Carolyn before heading home.
The miracles in my life continued when I earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1994. When students went home during the holiday break, it seemed natural for me to return to India and the Feathered Pipe. In my memory, this time back in Montana was vital for the formation of TCEF. Roy invited me to a special cabin that he shared with his close friend Bill Wilmot. During this visit we had plenty of time for conversation and I approached Roy, an attorney. I talked to him about formalizing the support from our beautiful friends in Montana into a nonprofit organization.
The following summer I returned home to my small school, armed with my Master’s Degree from Harvard. I’m not privy to what exactly transpired in the founding of TCEF. I can only imagine Roy contacting India, or it might have been the other way round. In December 1995, they incorporated the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation with the Montana Secretary of State. The founding members were India Supera, Roy Andes, VJ Supera, Bill Wilmot, and Deanna Sheriff.
Roy became the first Executive Director. Of course, the foundation did not have many funds at that time, so everyone, including Roy, worked purely as volunteers. During this time, I was the partner on the other side of the globe. Two years later, we accomplished a small miracle in building an educational hostel at Clement Town. We had the immense good fortune even to have HH The Dalai Lama name it Kyitsel-ling – a place to grow up in happiness.
The biggest turning point in my life and possibly for TCEF came in 2002. That year, thanks again to India’s sponsorships, my three daughters also got visitors’ visas! The girls had their summer break during May and June, and to travel with them to America was another huge dream come true. When we left India, it was with the thought that this would be a two-month trip. So we packed accordingly, said our goodbyes accordingly. We left our home in Clement Town as it was, with clothes on hangers.
In Montana, we had a board meeting where we discussed the initial thought of my extended stay to work full time for TCEF and see if having a Tibetan face would help TCEF grow. But we were not quite sure, and I think we decided to move ahead with a couple of decisions: consult an immigration lawyer and explore legal possibilities, and then do a tour to promote TCEF and see if we can increase support.
In May 2002, the younger TCEF board members Crystal Water and Michael Willing undertook a massive task for TCEF and my family. They borrowed India’s big Suburban, packed the Tibetan family, and then proceeded on a tour down the West coast. At several of these venues, my dedicated wife Gensang would make our favorite Tibetan dumplings to entice people. Within our TCEF circle, these events later became known as the ‘Momo Road Shows’.
It turned out to be a hugely successful tour, almost a miraculous one, something we’ve not been able to replicate since. At various locations, all the event hosts were either friends of India and VJ or business contacts of Crystal and Michael. At that time, they had an import-export business. I cannot thank those wonderful event sponsors enough. If India, Roy, and the others had laid the foundations of TCEF, I feel like we put in the walls during that tour. We received a lot of donations and, more importantly, we came back with a long list of contacts and 25 new children’s education sponsorships.
In July, the programs at the Feathered Pipe were in full swing, and every week India would allow me to address whatever group they had at the ranch. It is then no wonder that some of TCEF’s most enduring sponsors are also famous yoga teachers. I met many kind and generous persons at these small intimate meetings including Ann Down, a great philanthropist and Tibet supporter. Over the years, she has been a huge source of inspiration and support for us. With her initial grant, she helped TCEF tide over those shaky initial years.
In 2004 we had another memorable tour. It was a nationwide tour led by India herself. Her adopted son Joshua drove for us. Gensang and I were thrilled to journey with her and have India all to ourselves for such a length of time. Again, we tapped into India’s friends and fantastic connections to do a series of events. We started with her longtime friends Stu and Sherry Kahn in New York, drove down to Virginia, headed further south to Florida, did an event in Texas at the Dallas Yoga Center, before heading home via New Mexico and Colorado.
This tour and all the time that I was able to spend with India were vital and precious for me to learn from her. Often, my Tibetaness would get in the way of asking people for help and, since that is the core of what we do, I needed to learn and learn fast. I think she went out of her way to teach me and to instill in me the confidence to ask, knowing that we had a worthy cause. Once we were in line at a local Montana business and she was chatting with the folks behind her. Hardly two minutes into the conversation, she had not only introduced herself and talked about the foundation, but also whipped out two sponsorship brochures. That is not to say that we got a couple of sponsors that day, but I think she was teaching me to ask, to ask with confidence knowing that you are not asking something for yourself.
I can’t remember when or how we first invited Tibetan artists and shared the culture with interested audiences here in the West, but I’m so glad we did. In 2005, we welcomed three outstanding Tibetan thangka artists for a series of exhibitions, live demonstrations, and talks. All of them were from India, all skilled and excellent in their artistry. This tour started an exciting phase of TCEF traveling with various Tibetan cultural ambassadors. Over the next several years, we did seven major tours with monks, sand mandala creators, butter sculptors, performing artists, and thangka artists. We toured 25 states, did scores of events, and reached an estimated 25,000 people through our cultural events.
These tours took us to places where no Tibetans had ever been before. We got to be the pioneers of sharing Tibetan culture and talking about Tibetan issues in places like Bismarck and Williston, North Dakota; Sidney and Culbertson, Montana; Walla Walla in Washington; and Jackson Hole In Wyoming. People had heard of HH The Dalai Lama but knew very little else about Tibet. In Culbertson, we had a sand mandala presentation one morning that was attended by students. Some of them were fascinated by the sand mandala, but they didn’t know much about Tibet, nor were they particularly enamored by it till we told them that the person creating the sand mandala had starred in Seven Years in Tibet with Brad Pitt. They looked at him with renewed interest and respect!
Sharing the Tibetan culture, trying to raise awareness of it here in the West, gave an added meaning to our work. As a nonprofit, this seemed to be the most effective and perhaps the only meaningful way that we could help to preserve and promote this endangered yet precious and unique Tibetan culture. Again, we are indebted to board members and the various event hosts in different places that made all these events possible. TCEF events related to the cultural tours were a win-win situation for us. On the one hand, they helped raise awareness of Tibetan Art and Culture, and they also gave us a platform to talk about Tibetan children and their educational needs. These events helped us find sponsors to the point where we were able to start planning our second sponsorship program – supporting destitute and needy Tibetan elders in exile.
I know the stories of the Tibetan elders well. They are, after all, the stories of my own family, my mom and dad. TCEF founders and older board members knew their stories. Among our collection of TCEF’s articles is an interview of my mom by Roy. Many of these Tibetan elders had followed HH The Dalai Lama into exile in 1959. All of them had led incredibly challenging lives. In Tibet, they might have been farmers, nomads, monks, nuns or traders. In exile, they were simply unknown refugees with no language or other work skills. Most of them began their new lives as road construction laborers – breaking stones on the side of an Indian road. In time, several of them found ways to leave that behind and eke out livelihoods as roadside hawkers, but life has never really been easy for them.
The Tibetan family structure is good and children will support their parents in most cases. But what happens in a situation when people do not have children? Several of the elders were former monks and nuns who never married. The Tibetan Government-in-exile has done yeomen service, and I’m always its big fan, but we just don’t have the taxation base for a program like Social Security. In such a situation, a sponsorship program to benefit destitute Tibetan elders could be a game-changer. So, in 2007, we started our Grandparents’ sponsorship program, built on our children’s program model. Our role would be to seek out interested kind sponsors here and pair them with Tibetan elders in exile who need help.
Several of our event hosts became front line supporters of TCEF. Perhaps the most crucial event host we’ve ever had is Jennifer Prugh. She hosted one of our first sand mandala events in California in 2009. The event itself was one of the most successful we’ve ever done. Still, Jennifer’s story is that she networked, used social media, and organized a follow-up event at her business – Breathe Together Yoga at Los Gatos – and helped expand our sponsorship program. Shortly after, we convinced her to join our board, on which she currently serves. Over the years, she has helped to find more than 50 sponsorships for both children and elders.
Another amazing woman who made a big difference for TCEF was Valerie Hellermann. In 2006 she joined the TCEF team as our project manager. She brought instant energy to the foundation. She traveled far and wide, met some really interesting persons such as Lama Paljor in Sikkim, and started several programs for TCEF. By far, her most important contribution was initiating and leading Service Trips to various sites in India. These trips offered interested people an opportunity to offer direct services to communities in need. With time, the focus of these trips became increasingly medical. In 2017 Valerie branched off to create her own separate nonprofit called Hands-on Global that continues to provide essential services for refugees and other communities in need of urgent medical help.
This amazing stretch of about ten years started from the first Momo Road Show event in 2002. During that decade we must have done well over 100 TCEF events all over the country. Gensang and I have lost count of the event hosts, homes, and the vastly different beds in which we slept. The event coordinator also usually hosted us and whomever the cultural artist was at that time. Everyone, I mean just about everyone, was amazingly kind to us… after all they were people who had empathy for Tibet and for Tibetan causes. These people had put up their hands to host the events. Even then, there were huge individual differences in their dispositions and in their homes. We got to stay in mansions with swimming pools and also in basements with shared restrooms. We took them all in stride. Being Tibetan refugees prepared us well for uneven roads and different housing situations. Now, when we look back, it is with a smile of gratitude.
The Venerable Ngawang Chojor, our master sand mandala creator, passed away in his monastery in India in 2014. We lost momentum with our cultural tours after his passing. Also, we were getting tired and burned out from all the small events and fundraisers we had been churning out over all those years. That year the board decided to change our fundraising model – instead of all these small events, we’d put all of our energies into staging one big event each year. This decision gave birth to our Bollywood Night fundraisers in Helena.
For the last six years, Bollywood Night fundraisers have sustained and supported our operating expenses. We’re so fortunate to have met Prashant Kakad, a Bollywood DJ who combines his passion for Bollywood music and dancing with a golden heart. Every year they drive the twelve-odd hours from Portland, OR to Helena, MT, to put on one fantastic night of Bollywood fun and magic.
While our Bollywood Night fundraisers have greatly helped with our budget, not doing the cultural tours meant that we were not sharing Tibetan culture quite as much. At the same time, old friends like India, VJ, and Roy dreamed of a day when we could all travel together and once again share Tibetan culture at close quarters in the Tibetan communities in exile. In the spring of 2018, I finally received my US citizenship papers and we embarked on a pilgrimage titled In the Footsteps of the Buddha. Now, instead of sharing the culture here, we were taking interested persons on a trip to share the culture even more intimately in India. For the last three years, the Footsteps of the Buddha tour is an integral part of our programs.
In March 2019 when we did the Footsteps Tour, India was not well at all. Still, she wanted to come, to keep her promise and our dream of all traveling along that sacred site for last time. Her health did not allow her to physically enjoy the tour but I sensed that she was soaking in the blessings at every site. India’s passing away has left a huge void in TCEF that can perhaps never be fully restored. Yet, we’re still blessed to have the Feathered Pipe community envelope us with their love and support. VJ Supera stepped forward as president for TCEF and younger folks like Crystal Water and Winter Safronoff continue to be key board members.
Within the Tibetan community, we’ve often been despondent. It often seems that the world no longer cares for Tibet and Tibet-related issues. Somehow the occupation of a sacred zone of peace by a communist nation is forgotten, generating a sense of apathy. In this desert of global indifference, I’m grateful for pockets of awareness. I’m thankful for the oasis of support from our circle of TCEF sponsors and supporters. You give more than sponsorship funds. You give hope. You send the message that the world still cares for Tibet and Tibetan culture. And right now, that is critical because hope is a scarce commodity for the Tibetans in their struggle to survive and to preserve our identity and culture. Every donation to TCEF, no matter the size, contributes to our efforts to keep the Tibetan culture alive in the refugee Diaspora. And every continuing connection with sponsors and concerned folks around the world nurtures the ongoing story of Tibet, its past and its future. The TCEF organization is grateful for these 25 years of connections, opportunities, and support.
ABOUT KARMA TENSUM
Karma was only a small child when his family followed HH The Dalai Lama into exile in India. Education – sponsored by the compassion of total strangers transformed his life. He became an educator and has worked for Tibetan Education in Exile in various capacities for over 40 years. As Executive Director for the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation over the past 18 years, he has traveled all over the country and has done over a hundred presentations on Tibet, Tibetan culture and the educational needs of Tibetans in exile. Karma is a Tibetan in love with his culture and passionate about sharing it here in the West.
Learn more about Karma: tibetchild.org