One small town makes a big difference, thanks to two extraordinary OAT travelers
In the Tibetan language, the term "de ji" evokes a sense of happiness and well being—which is exactly
what a woman named Dhadon was searching for when she founded the De Ji Orphanage in Lhasa in 1992. A former teahouse owner, Dhadon was heartbroken at the sight of the hungry children who came by her shop each day. First, she fed them whatever scraps she could. Then, she allowed them to sleep in her doorway. Finally, she was compelled to close her teahouse and dedicate her life to providing a home for these children.
Reverend Kathleen Kircher, a 2-time OAT traveler from Williamsburg, Michigan, traveled the narrow, bumpy road to the De Ji orphanage during her adventure in China—and from the very first moment, she understood Dhadon's compassion. "The October air was cold," Kathleen remembers, "and the little ones who greeted us were without gloves or mittens, and shivering in their lightweight jackets."
Their welcome, in contrast, was genuine and warm. The children greeted the guests with an impressive rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," sung in Tibetan, Chinese, and English. "Their chilled hands reached out to ours," says Kathleen, "and the barriers of language, culture, and age seemed to vanish." The children led the group on a tour of the facility, and while the buildings were clean and tidy, it was impossible to ignore how few possessions each child had.
Still, despite the apparent lack of luxuries, the children were happy. Says Dr. Dana Vannoy, 2-time
traveler from Williamsburg, Michigan and Kathleen's OAT travel partner, "My impression was that this was a very well-run place with a sensitive and caring staff who made the most of what they had for these orphans."
Whatever the De Ji Orphanage does have in terms of resources comes from private donors like Grand Circle Foundation. The Chinese government does not support orphans in Tibet—and because the orphanage is not acknowledged by the government, it is impossible for the children to be legally adopted. "One of the biggest motivations for me to reach out to this place is its history within the political climate," says Dana. "This seemed to me a very worthy place that is making a real difference for more than 80 children."
When the women returned home to Michigan, they set out to make a real difference of their own. In their church communities, the two had already established a tradition of sharing photo presentations on their travels. "Since my retirement, my main endeavor has been the art of photography," says Dana, "and I especially love sharing my travel images with others." This time, they gave their event a cause. Along with the eight other members of their OAT travel group, they organized a Chinese dinner before the presentation and sold tickets for $12 to the community of Elk Rapids, home to about 1,600 residents.
The dinner sold out completely—and the proceeds of the 265 tickets, combined with additional contributions, totaled $4074 for the De Ji Orphanage. "It was amazing to see a small town get behind the endeavor," says Kathleen. "The results exceeded all our expectations." This generous gift enabled the orphanage to provide all of the children with clothing, shoes, blankets, bed sheets, and toothbrushes. They also purchased a new refrigerator and plenty of meat and vegetables to stock it.
Kathleen and Dana epitomize the mindset of many who travel with OAT: open, caring, and
connected with the wider world. "OAT experiences brought me into the personal circumstances of others," says Kathleen. "I saw the blessings I sometimes take for granted, and I saw that others had similar hopes and dreams." For Kathleen, this understanding gave charity a whole new meaning. "Charitable giving has been a value I have cherished for decades," she says. "OAT awakened me to their 'giving back' ethic, and opened a secure and meaningful way for me to support good works and good people through Grand Circle Foundation."
Dana, too, has been touched by the personal interactions she has made in her travels. "The Grand Circle Foundation provides a means of sharing what we have with others so that we are not just entering the world as observers," she says. "My advice to others is to get involved with those you visit in any way possible."
For proof positive that getting involved can yield extraordinary results, look no further than Elk Rapids, Michigan. Says Dana, "As travelers, we cannot fix all the problems in the countries we visit, but we can make a small difference in some places." And in places like the De Ji Orphanage, such small differences can give children a whole world of hope.