After hearing about the deeply meaningful connections TASIS students had forged with Tibetan children on previous trips to Nepal, College Counselor Carroll Birk jumped at an opportunity to join the Nepal Global Service Learning Group this year, and she hoped to do something extra for the children of the Tserok Tibetan Refugee Camp, a particularly disadvantaged group in a country where the annual per capita income hovers around $400. Birk had heard that the evenings in the Kali Gandaki Valley of Nepal can be bitterly cold, so she decided to draw upon her passion for knitting to create something small that would have a big impact.
|“Watching the joy on the kids faces as they received the gift was one of the most powerful moments I've ever witnessed on a service trip.”|
|-Danny Schiff, Trip Leader|
Seven months later, she was on a March 18 flight to Nepal with 15 students, three additional adult chaperones, and an extra suitcase containing warm clothing donated by TASIS students and 39 hand-knit hats—each one different than the last.
“It’s a simple little hat that has built-in ear flaps and comes to a small little point, and to me it just looked like Nepal or Tibet,” she said. “The yarn only comes in so many colors, but I started combining different ones and actually manipulating the yarn so that the color sequences were different and every hat was unique.”
After spending one night in a hotel in Kathmandu and one night with families at the Tashiling Tibetan Refugee Camp, the TASIS group—which has been researching and discussing Nepal and Tibetan refugees all year—embarked on a 4 ½-day, 80-kilometer trek to the remote Tibetan refugee settlement of Tserok, where they would spend the next five days learning about the extraordinary challenges this community faces and working with the refugees to build a retention wall to help prevent flooding and erosion.
“The trip was amazing,” said Carroll. “There’s very little about it that’s easy, but that’s not the point of it.”
Soon after arriving at the settlement, TASIS math teacher and trip leader Danny Schiff, who helped develop the two-week Nepal trip after traveling to the Everest region on his own four years ago, spoke to some of the village’s leaders in an effort to determine the best way to distribute the hats to the local children. It was suggested that the hats simply be turned over to the leaders, who would pass them out at a later time, but fellow chaperones Greg Birk (Director of University and College Counseling and Carroll’s husband) and Anna Kavalauskas (English teacher) insisted that Carroll should be involved in the process.
While everyone was relaxing before dinner after a long day of hard work, it was decided that the first hat would be given to Tenzin Tsering, a boy Schiff has developed a special bond with over the past three years. “Tenzin is certainly the mayor of children at Tserok Refugee Camp,” said Schiff. “He is charismatic, kind, and playful, and I love reconnecting with him every year.”
Tenzin was summoned and presented with his hat. He was grateful to receive the gift, and the Birks quickly let him know they had more for his friends and asked him to gather them. Tenzin soon reappeared and shouted, “Mrs. Birk, there’s a pack of children coming!” About a dozen children crowded around Carroll and eagerly accepted their new hats, and the next day she was able to distribute the rest at the end of a visit to the village school.
Schiff identified the children’s reactions as a major highlight of the many service trips he has led. “Watching the joy on the kids faces as they received the gift was one of the most powerful moments I've ever witnessed on a service trip,” he said. “I can't wait to return next year and see all the kids still wearing their prized possessions. I had tears in my eyes watching this exchange, knowing how much work Carroll had invested in the hats and how much joy it brought the community of children at Tserok.”
Carroll previously ran a Service Learning Group at TASIS called Knitting for Those in Need in which she and students produced clothing for underprivileged children in Africa, and through the years she has donated her own creations to a variety of worthy causes, including hospitals seeking hats for prematurely born babies. “I feel that the effort it takes to do something by hand somehow has a greater effect than a store-bought hat,” she said. “I hope it warms their hearts while it warms their head.”
Carroll developed the idea to knit hats for the children of Tserok last August and began toiling at a steady clip right away. She knew she would be unable to participate in the trekking portion of the trip due to a knee injury, so she was determined to contribute in a different way.
“Carroll always goes all in when she decides on something, so I knew she was wanting to knit enough caps for all the children of the village,” said Greg Birk. “I'm not sure she knew for sure what that number would be, so she was driven to knit as many hats as she could before the trip.”
|"They kept talking about how we give them so much and they have nothing to give us. But we made sure they knew that they gave us something we could never put a value on.”|
It was actually 39¾, but I ran out of yarn,” said Carroll, who devoted roughly three hours to each hat. “I found a pattern that was easy enough to memorize, and I was just doing it all the time. I knitted almost an entire hat in the dark while we watched The Martian with students in the Palmer Center earlier this year!”
The hats will serve as both a practical and sentimental keepsake for a village that was already incredibly grateful for the roughly 400 man-hours the TASIS contingent dedicated to the construction of the retention wall.
“I was endlessly impressed with the TASIS students,” Carroll said. “They stepped up, worked hard together, and didn’t complain no matter what was thrown at them.”
The village leaders were no doubt impressed as well, and they expressed their gratitude by presenting the TASIS group a very nice plaque during a touching ceremony at the end of their trip.
“They kept talking about how we give them so much and they have nothing to give us,” said Carroll. “But we made sure they knew that they gave us something we could never put a value on.”
2016 Nepal Service Learning Group
All 39 hats knit by Carroll Birk
Carroll Birk leading the Knitting in Need Service Learning Group a few years ago
Danny Schiff receiving a plaque from the villiage leaders
TASIS group on the trek to Tserok
Video from the 2014 TASIS trip to Nepal
TASIS Global Service Program
The Global Service Program was envisioned by Jan Opsahl ’68, who became the first international student at TASIS when he came from Norway in 1965. The pioneering program was launched in 2013 with major support from a most generous donation from Mr. Opsahl and his family to set up the Global Service Trust. This Trust, along with support from the TASIS Foundation, make this incredible, life-changing experience for our students possible.
The Global Service Program transforms lives by providing every High School student a unique opportunity to connect across borders through comprehensive experiences that build empathy and encourage personal responsibility. Participation in the program—which is designed to awaken students to humanitarian needs, inspire them to build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships, and lead them toward a life of active citizenship and committed service—is a graduation requirement.