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A cross-global journey to help

Local West Ranch High School student travels to Tibet to help construct a school, revitalize culture

Posted: November 12, 2010 8:19 p.m.
Updated: November 13, 2010 4:30 a.m.

West Ranch High School senior Isabelle Howell, 17, right, poses with one of the women she worked with while in Tibet.

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Isabelle Howell, 17, remembers driving more than 15 hours through 13,000-foot mountain passes to reach the Tibetan village where the nonprofit organization Bodhicitta Inc. plans on building a girls school. 

It was a journey made on rough roads in bitter, cold weather.

Despite having altitude sickness, the West Ranch High School student was committed to reaching the village to begin the process of planning and building the school, an idea that excited Howell.

“When you educate the girls of the village, the whole culture can be revitalized and preserved,” Howell said.

A dream fulfilled
Howell became interested in charity work after her grandfather Vic traveled to Tibet in 2006. Vic, whose last name is withheld because of safety concerns, wanted to visit Tibet after he read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” as a young adult. 

“It was so far off the charts from anything I had ever read,” he said.

It wasn’t until 40 years later that Vic was able to fulfill that dream. In 2006, he spent three months in Tibet, where he met and studied with the Dalai Lama, an opportunity that most Westerners never get. Vic immersed himself in the culture and even lived in a cave with a yogi, high in the mountains of Tibet.

“They are the most spiritual people,” he said. “They embody spirituality in everyday life.”

Vic saw a Tibetan monastery from the cave that was decimated by the Chinese during the revolution of the 1970s.

Extensive damage was done, and the monks attempted to rebuild it with mud, Vic recalled.

Despite the poor living conditions, the students of the monastery were very kind and smiled every day. Sometimes they even brought him food in the cave.

A family journey
Vic later returned to the states and began the nonprofit organization Bodhicitta Inc., also known as KarmaBlast, and began raising money to rebuild the monastery. As a result of an anonymous donation of $200,000, Vic was not only able to rebuild the monastery using a Tibetan contractor and local Tibetan labor, but also rebuilt an orphanage in Vietnam with the remaining money.

Vic involved Howell from the beginning and made her secretary of the organization. They quickly began planning the building of schools in Tibet, Mongolia and India, with a needed 3 million to complete all the projects.

Do good things and you will be a happier person Vic taught Howell, and good things will also happen as a result.

The 15-day trip Vic took with his granddaughter in October allowed the organization to lay the foundation for the future of
the school. They met with the elders of the village, drew up blueprints and created a budget. Howell described the Tibetan people as the happiest people she’d ever met. 

“They were kind and not resentful,“ she said. “They herded yaks and meditated daily for all the people of the world.”

Two days before they left, a protest broke out in response to a declaration from Beijing that the Tibetan language would no longer be taught in public schools, Howell said. 

“Once you lose the language,” Vic said, “you begin to lose the culture.”

Howell hopes that building the schools will help preserve the language and culture.

The trip made a large impact on her life. They stayed with a family in their mud brick home with no running water or electricity. While there, Howell took the daughter of the family with her to the public showers.

“She almost started crying,” Howell said. “She had never taken a shower in her whole life and said she wouldn’t know what to do.”

Howell explained that the villagers don’t bathe often because of the frigid cold temperatures, and when they do, they bathe in rivers. This helped her realize not to take her basic privileges and rights as an American for granted.

A plan to return
Howell plans to return to Tibet this summer and hopes to teach English at the school once it is finished.

Her efforts aren’t only focused on her work abroad. She volunteers weekly at Rancho Pico Junior High School to teach art to special needs children. She also hopes to attend college in New York after graduation.

Howell wants to use her artistic sensibility to continue to grow an meet other people who interact with the world. She dreams about working to obliterate sexism and racism. Howell says she is happy knowing what they have accomplished so far, but won’t be satisfied until they do more.

“I want to create opportunities for girls to receive education in places where they would otherwise never be exposed to it,” she said. “This is the first step in stopping other forms of oppression and racism. In educating these girls we empower them to (also) make changes.”

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