Johns Creek couple reaches out to Nepal orphans

Create charity to give abandoned children their lives back

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – It is not uncommon for business people to donate their time to mentor young people on how to be successful in business, but it is quite another thing to go to Nepal to do it.

Four Johns Creek residents are using their lifelong business skills to teach orphaned and abandoned children on the other side of the world the tools they need to realize their dreams.

Bruce Keenan was intrigued to be invited in 1999 to go on a vacation trek through the vast beauty of the Himalayan Mountains, but it turned into a life-changing experience for him and dozens of orphaned or abandoned children who live on the roof of the world.

Keenan, co-founder and former chief executive officer of Prosys Information Systems, found that while Nepal was a country of unparalleled beauty, it was also a country of equally unparalleled poverty. He said it was common practice to put small children, orphaned or abandoned, to work instead of sending them to school.

Keenan was especially struck by one 7-year-old girl he saw who had been abandoned by her family. The hotel owner in this little village where they were staying had taken her in. He put her through two years of school and then put her to work.

“Our guide explained to us that the family had taken her in and fed her and sent her to school. Now she needs to work. Otherwise, she would be dead. That really hit me,” Keenan said.

When he returned to Kathmandu, Keenan began sponsoring two sisters. That was the beginning of the Himalayan Children’s Charities, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that is helping these lost children.

Today, Keenan and his wife Susan manage the non-governmental organization, which has two group homes and is helping 53 orphans with food, shelter and education through four years of college. They range in age from 21 down to 7.

After selling Prosys in 2006, the Keenans devoted more time to developing the charity. They soon realized that the students, while receiving their basic needs of food, clothing, education and medical services, had led very sheltered lives in group homes and boarding schools.

They did not know how to take care of a home or interview for a job. They had no knowledge of how to save money, manage a bank account or bargain in the marketplace.

Using their business talents, the Keenans created a life skills program for senior students to develop self-sufficiency and give them basic skills that people in the U.S. take for granted.

“American kids learn basic life skills in the family, from a parent’s guidance or in church,” said Susan Keenan. “These children have no parents to encourage natural abilities or to teach them to interact with the world. Now, in addition to a formal education, they are learning practical skills that will help them become successful in life.”

When people ask him what he does now, Keenan shows them information about Himalayan Charities.

“We are making a difference in children’s lives. I lay it out to people and see what sticks,” he said.

By sticking, he means he sees if people want to get involved. It takes $1,550 a year to feed, clothe, house and educate one child. Corporate donations make up any shortfalls, but that will support a child.

One of the first couples the Keenans met were Julie and Michael Haley, two Johns Creek entrepreneurs who operate their business, Edge Solutions Inc., in Alpharetta.

Julie Haley is now on the advisory council for HCC. The Keenans flew her to Kathmandu to see the program firsthand, to meet the children and to make her a better spokeswoman for Himalayan Children’s Charities. She said it was an amazing experience.

“I have since flown back over a couple of times with my husband. Once, we brought our son who was at Chattahoochee [High School] at the time, and it really changed his life,” she said.

She said her son was caught up in the usual teenage crises of cliques and trying to belong. But when her son got to Nepal, it was truly a different world.

“He saw how blessed he was,” she said. “These Nepali kids have nothing but will share everything.”

She and her husband have been sponsors for 10 years now and have real relationships with the children they sponsor. They keep in touch via Skype and love getting updates on their progress.

“My ‘son’ Khil is 21 and a college student success,” Haley said. “He is in his second year at the University of Kathmandu’s School of Public Health. He plans to open clinics in rural areas of Nepal where there is no health care.

“He has already received Red Cross Training and volunteers for two international NGOs,” she said. “Can you tell I am a proud mama?”

Haley began to proselytize for more sponsors and soon had two more Johns Creek families on board as long-term sponsors. The Milway family sponsors “Harsha,” and Dr. Mary Ellen Sweeny, a doctor at Emory Hospital, and her husband Ed Gogol sponsor “Tenzing.”

Sweeny actually saved Tenzing’s life when he got a life-threatening tapeworm in his brain. She was able to diagnose the problem and advise Nepali doctors on treatment and antibiotics that allowed Tenzing to recover fully.

She will travel to Nepal next fall and the two will actually meet.

“It’s a great organization that is really making a huge difference,” Sweeny said. “These kids don’t have any safety net. Most of them were found on the streets with no memory of having parents.”

Even those children fortunate enough to find a way into one of the few orphanages in Nepal are not much better off. Haley said they have lice and runny noses. They get little personal attention.

“When you walk in, they run up and hold onto to your legs. It is just the saddest thing you have ever seen in your life,” she said.

Haley said the organization has had obstacles to overcome. Keenan set up a computer lab for the children to learn the 21st century skills they will need to succeed. When he flew back to check on things, all of the equipment was gone.

“Most people would have given up, But he saw how desperate the kids were,” Haley said. “But the Keenans don’t quit.”

So the commitment is long-term.

To donate to

Himalayan Children’s Charities,

send check to:

HCC

P.O. Box 3837

Alpharetta, Ga. 30023-3837

Or go to www.hccnepal.org.