“Youth Ambassadors” come home inspired by Nepal adventure

Youth Ambassadors take a break at the Nyatapola Temple, the tallest temple in Nepal. (Photos by Mathew Swerdloff)

About a year-and-a-half before the New Paltz High School student’s suicide stunned her community in late 2015, young Maya Gold went on a family trip that included a visit to a residential girls’ school in northern India. “She was so taken and moved, she wanted to stay,” reported her mother, Elise Gold. Soon thereafter, Maya read a novel by Patricia McCormick titled Sold, which told the heartbreaking story of a Nepali girl being sold into sex slavery by her destitute family and her subsequent escape. From these experiences Maya formulated a mission for her life: to work in Nepal to help alleviate the poverty and exploitation of young women.

Maya Gold did not live long enough to realize her dream. But the charitable foundation that her parents founded in her memory has dedicated itself to two primary goals: to “support and develop programs for teens in New Paltz and the surrounding area that will enhance emotional awareness, build mutual support and caring among teens and adults, strengthen inner resilience and teach mindfulness practice;” and “support carefully vetted Nepali organizations, and develop cross-cultural exchanges that will provide essentials and inspire hope for youth in Nepal and New Paltz.”

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Partnering with a non-governmental organization called Himalayan Children’s Charities (HCC), which runs group homes and residential schools in Nepal serving at-risk youth, the Maya Gold Foundation organized its first cross-cultural exchange trip to Katmandu and surrounding communities this spring, under a program called Heart of Gold Adventures. The stated purpose of the new philanthropic travel venture is “to offer Hudson Valley teens an educational experience that includes cultural awareness and appreciation, service to others and the fun of adventure, so they can be empowered to gain a greater sense of themselves and the world. Participants will develop a passion for exploration and community engagement, and learn skills to empower themselves to put their dreams into action.”

At Pottery Square, a kind man who has been throwing pots for over sixty years gave Taylor Metz, Youth Ambassador, a turn at his manually-powered wheel.

We recently caught up with several of the group of 15 teenagers who participated in the inaugural expedition in late March and early April. Eleven of the teens came from the New Paltz area, two from the Onteora School District and one from the Rondout Valley; another, Taylor Metz of Camden, New Jersey, had once been a bunkmate of Maya’s at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center and kept in touch with her via social media. Taylor said that she had wanted to join the Peace Corps since the age of nine, and jumped at the chance to make the journey to Nepal in her old friend’s memory.

Several other high schoolers came aboard as a result of having been acquainted with Maya, or being caught up in the collective soul-searching among local youth in the wake of her untimely death. “Some were called by the vision of the Maya Gold Foundation, wanting to have a cross-cultural experience and do some good in the world,” Elise said. One NPHS student in attendance at a post-trip “debriefing” meeting, Hannah Spilhaus, was motivated in part by a longtime ambition to pursue a career in international development. “I thought the trip would help open my eyes — clarify and solidify what I wanted to do when I was older.” Saying that the experience had “exceeded my expectations,” Hannah added, “Without a doubt, I want to go to Nepal again.”

Another NPHS student, Ariana Rodriguez, had already formulated an ambition to work in the Foreign Service following a service trip to Haiti “right after the earthquake.” She said that in Nepal, she found it easy to form “really strong connections…even if you don’t speak the same language.” These Youth Ambassadors spent time with Nepali children and teens in a variety of settings: organizing “playshops” where they shared skills; planting fruit trees at a rural elementary school that was being rebuilt following an earthquake; learning about the Way of Dharma from a Buddhist nun and Hindu traditions from a Bengali professor; trekking to a famous ancient shrine and whitewater rafting in the Himalayan foothills; preparing communal meals and planning talent shows; watching ritual dance and traditional artisans at work. The American teens also packed lightly so that they could each donate some of their luggage allowance to bring donated goods to a group home and an orphanage sponsored by HCC. Hundreds of photos of the kids’ adventures and interactions with their Nepali counterparts are posted on the Maya Gold Foundation’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mayagoldfoundation.

For the participants, the first Heart of Gold Adventure was a transformative experience, and plans are already being made for a return trip during spring break in 2019. The returnees have all committed to giving public presentations about what they’ve learned, said Elise, and some are determined to study Nepali language, dance and cooking. “Their priorities have shifted. They’re more authentic and real with their peers.” Taylor agreed: “Typical high-school drama seems so stupid now. There are so many more important things we could be talking about.”

To learn more about future Heart of Gold Adventures and how you can support the foundation’s work, visit www.mayagoldfoundation.org.

In a rural village impacted by the 2015 earthquake, New Paltz High School Freshman, Julius Forte, plays with children from the Shree Singha Devi Primary School.

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