Image credit: Dan Howell
Liz Foster is a senior marketing manager and producer at Quigley, a fully-integrated brand performance agency uniting brand and demand-based in Los Angeles, California.
In 2008 I travelled solo to Kathmandu, Nepal, with a volunteer organization called United Planet, where I was on a four-week mission to support resident instructors and staff at an orphanage.
I spent many years in LA as a freelance project manager/producer and worked with many top-tier advertising agencies. During this time, I worked with TBWA\Chiat\Day, Team One, Saatchi & Saatchi, RPA, and a few other industry giants. Eventually, I felt inspired to take an intentional step outside of my comfort zone and travel to where I’d never been before. Nepal seemed almost mythical to me at that time. I imagined Nepal was an ancient, faraway spiritual land filled with the most intriguing gems to be found. I was drawn to Nepal because of a single sheet of handmade paper that had come across my desk when working at a design shop many years prior. We were producing an invitation and working with some of Nepal’s most beautiful handmade paper. At that moment, I committed to finding my way to Nepal “someday”. That day came in the spring of 2008.
After a 21-hour journey from LA to Kathmandu, I arrived at the home of the VP of the orphanage, who showed me to a small room with a tiny desk and a makeshift bed, my home for the next four weeks. During the first few days, I road on the back of my host’s moped for the two-mile ride from his home to the orphanage. I had to learn the twisted route, as I would have to walk there and back for the remaining days. When I arrived at the orphanage, I was greeted warmly by the teachers and head manager, who escorted me to a classroom. In the classroom were 11 Nepalese boys, ranging from six to 12 years old. After I introduced myself, I waited for an instructor to arrive. An instructor never came, and I quickly realized that the expectation was that I would be responsible for leading this classroom and keeping these boys out of trouble. I was not aware that I would so soon carry this much responsibility, and I searched the room for resources, learning tools, and some way to create a connection. Having found no resources in combination with the language barrier, we all stared blankly at each other. I felt lost, unqualified for the job, and utterly terrified that I’d have to find a way to fill four weeks of volunteer work in this environment. I had to dig deep.
On the two-mile walk that I traversed each day, I got to know some of the local vendors; the man who sold me bottled water, the woman who sold sweets I’d pick up for the kids from time to time. I even discovered a man who sold stationery, blank notebooks, pencils, and erasers. I bought eleven sets of all three and began handwriting lesson plans in each notebook each night for the following day. One day was an English lesson; another day was a math lesson; another was an art lesson. Due to electricity rationing in Kathmandu at that time, there were nights when I would write lessons with only the light of a headlamp in my small room. Over the weeks, the boys and I got to know each other, trust each other, and learn from each other. After teaching the boys for several weeks, I asked them to teach me their language. Together we wrote a lesson plan for me, and they would quiz me on Nepali words. They became animated when we did this. They laughed when I got it wrong and hugged me when I got it right. I wanted them to know that I was a student too, just like them. By the end of my volunteer work, I knew each boy well, and the bond we shared was strong. I loved them all and was sad to leave them. I promised to return one day, although I haven’t yet.
No matter where we are on our path, we are all students. Always learning. Always growing. This experience taught me to overcome unexpected challenges and tested my resourcefulness. I went to volunteer and teach orphans, but they taught me one of my biggest lessons. To be open to the unknown, stay flexible, be resourceful, know that there is always a solution, a way through any challenge. I carried this perspective back with me and into all aspects of my life. I lean into this strength every day in my work.
Little did I know that tracing a single sheet of handmade paper back to Nepal would lead me to an experience that enriched my life beyond anything I’d dreamed. Kathmandu and the Himalayas were indeed the ancient, spiritual land that I’d imagined, and the lesson I learned was the intriguing gem I went to find.