Santosh Basnet ran away from a poor home in Nepal and an abusive father when he was 9. He hoped for a better life, but instead lived on the streets of Kathmandu, finding odd jobs such as dishwasher or street sweeper.
One day, while he was outside collecting water for a tea shop, a truck drove by too close to the curb and hit him, crushing his right arm in its front wheel.
The doctors had to amputate, and a dozen surgeries followed. Basnet had been in the hospital for more than a year when an American Jewish woman showed up. It was Olga Murray from Sausalito.
She found herself spellbound by Nepalese children who were cheerful despite hardship, like Basnet.
“Olga said she liked my smile,” Basnet recalled. “And decided to take me in … I don’t know where I would be, or if I would exist, had it not been for her.”
Murray gave Basnet a second chance at life by placing him in a group home for orphan boys in Nepal. It was created and funded by the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF), which Murray, 83, founded 18 years ago.
“She was a mother, our life,” Basnet said of Murray and the seven years he lived in the house.
Basnet later moved to the United States, and began attending the College of Marin in Kentfield in 2000. This summer, the 27-year-old will graduate with a master’s degree in business from Dominican University in San Rafael.
“I am the product of the foundation,” he said proudly.
The seeds for NYOF sprouted in 1984 when Murray, who has no children of her own, flew solo to Nepal by way of India, “with a little suitcase and no plans.”
A chance encounter with an orphanage inspired her to independently sponsor five children.
From that, NYOF was created in 1990, and it has since grown dramatically; today it employs nine native Nepalese staff. The organization has provided some 4,000 Nepalese children with educational scholarships, from kindergarten through medical school. Another practice is to place children such as Basnet in group homes and pay for living, education and medical expenses.
“I feel joyful every day for what I’m able to do for other children,” Murray said.
NYOF also runs nine homes across Nepal for poor mothers and their malnourished children. Mothers spend about five weeks learning how to feed their children and how to treat digestive ailments such as diarrhea. Social workers stay in touch with the families to make sure they maintain the healthy habits they learned from NYOF.
Murray’s foundation also aims to end the practice of thousands of young Nepalese girls from the rural Dang region being sold into indentured servitude.
Families send their daughters to work in private homes, farms or as dishwashers in teahouses because they need the income, Murray said.
To try and end this practice, NYOF gave a pig or a goat to families who elected not to sell their daughters. Either animal could be raised on kitchen scraps and then sold for about the sum they would receive for their child’s labor (or more if they bred the animal).
“Now, it’s a disgrace, a shame” to sell a young girl, Murray said. “We’re changing the culture.”
Murray was born in 1925 in Transylvania, an area that she said “was never good for the Jews.” When she was 6, she came through Ellis Island with her mother, brother and two sisters. They joined their father in the Bronx.
“I think my parents were the greatest influence on the work I do [with NYOF],” Murray said. “We were very poor, but they never refused anybody in need. So I grew up with the idea that this was the way to behave.”
Murray moved to the Bay Area in 1954 after attending Columbia University and Georgetown University Law School. Murray’s best friend, Joan Heffelfinger, whom she met in law school, moved to San Francisco around the same time. The women have celebrated every birthday together for the past 53 years.
“I’m still blown away by how she relates to people,” said Heffelfinger of San Francisco. “She still brings her enthusiasm. It has just never waned.”
Murray landed a clerkship with a judge on the California Supreme Court, a job she had for 37 years until retiring in 1992.
By then, NYOF had become a more than full-time job, and Murray decided she would live for half the year in Nepal, half in Sausalito.
“I didn’t retire to sit around and polish my nails and play bridge,” she said. “That’s not me.”
Fifteen years into her retirement, Murray has no intention of slowing down. When she meets seniors her age who are tired or wary, she tells them to “go out and do something for somebody. That’s the secret to a good life.”
Basnet, one of the first to live in an NYOF home for orphan boys, has taken Murray’s advice to heart.
He recently started a nonprofit of his own, Sahayeta, which means “help” in Nepali. The organization will support Nepalese refugees in the Bay Area.
“No matter what happens, I will always be involved with NYOF. I consider myself a part of it,” he said. “But it’s time for me to give back. Olga is really, really happy and very proud.”
Just like a Jewish mother should be.
For more information about the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, visit www.nyof.org.