WAM Theatre: When did you become aware of WAM Theatre and the similarity in your goals?
Ricky Bernstein: I first met Kristen van Ginhoven when she was just forming WAM, around the time Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn was published. I actually met with Caroline Wheeler, founder of our co-beneficiary Sisters for Peace (SFP), and Kristen back then because we were all interested in doing something in response to reading the book. Since then, I have just fallen madly in love with Kristen as I have gotten to know her and all she is doing.
WAM: Hands In Outreach (HIO) has a few different projects to educate Nepali girls and women and improve their quality of life. Tell us about those efforts.
Ricky: HIO was founded in 1987 by Don Wilcox and his wife, Louise Todd Cope, who were craftspeople at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. I look over as Director in 1990, and in 1995 we decided to focus our work in Nepal. It is a poor country and a patriarchal, male oriented society. Only about 20% of Nepali women are literate and there is cultural stigma against women’s education. HIO focuses on formal and non-formal education for girls and young women in inner city Kathmandu in four specific ways:
1) We individually sponsor the education of 125 girls as day students in three affiliate schools.
2) We underwrite year-long vocational courses in the trades for ten poor young women who come from all over Nepal to a vocational center on the outskirts of Kathmandu called UCEP.
3) We fund Bal Kendra, a small Montessori oriented preschool for poor neighborhood children, many of whom are girls.
4) Our five-year strategic plan is focused on teacher training and includes volunteer teachers from the US and the UK. We’ve recently introduced innovative computer initiatives which use early childhood learning software to greatly enhance English language, math and science skills.
Most importantly, we want our HIO girls and young women to avoid repeating the cycle of poverty and illiteracy faced by their mothers, who never had the chance to go to school. Our strength lies in building strong, lasting relationships with our families, children and affiliate schools. After monitoring the progress of our HIO girls over 25 years, our program of close caring, individual support has resulted in a 98% success rate for student retention.
WAM: And with Holy Laughter we are supporting your current collaboration with Sisters for Peace. Tell us how that came about,
Ricky: Caroline is an HIO board member, and SFP currently sponsors four girls in Nepal through HIO. SFP will use their portion of the WAM money to continue those sponsorships and add a fifth sponsored girl in 2016.
WAM: What exactly will WAM’s donation enable Hands In Outreach to do in Nepal?
Ricky: We gave all our families direct cash transfers at the time of the earthquake, and our WAM money will give each of our 125 families a direct deposit of at least $20. That will buy them each enough rice, lentils, potatoes, and cooking oil to eat for a month. If Holy Laughter raises more than $5,000 (fingers crossed!) the extra funds will enable us to make the direct deposit to each family larger. I should make it clear that we don’t dole out food on a regular basis, HIO isn’t a welfare agency, our focus is on girls’ education, but right now the situation in Nepal is somewhat dramatic. There is a lot of political unrest and the border with India has been temporarily closed so food is in short supply. If a child comes to school hungry or sick how are they going to learn? We will actually secure the food well before WAM’s donation money comes in to ensure we have an adequate supply.
WAM: What is next for Hands In Outreach?
Ricky: We have just launched the Be Part of Her Dream Project in collaboration with Dining for Women to provide a supportive learning environment for the mothers of HIO girls to alleviate their condition of abject poverty. The core of the program gives, small cash-transfers to poor women, thus creating a modest, though vital base of financial stability. We can create a safety net where none now exists, providing a culturally sensitive program to help 54 mothers break an endless cycle of profound poverty. We plan to provide each woman with a cash-transfer of $20 per month, for two years. Half will be saved (at the end of the two years, BPOHD mothers will have saved $240) and the remainder available for food, rent and the lost wages for participating in three, two-hour literacy classes each week. Their daughters will become project partners by helping their mothers practice reading and writing in school and at home.
We are also embarking on a project to raise the money to build a new, permanent home for our Bala Kendra Center.
WAM: Other than buying tickets to Holy Laughter, how can people get involved with Hands In Outreach?
Ricky: I encourage people to go to our website and make a donation – there is a list of suggested items here. We’re doing the boots on the ground work and we need funding to keep programs going. About 96 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to our projects and 100% of our sponsorship money goes to the child, we take no administrative fees. Of course we have some overhead, and some chose to specifically donate money for administration costs so that other gifts can go straight to projects.
WAM: Tell us a little about yourself.
Ricky: I am a visual artist. I make big cartoons out of glass, aluminum, and wood. My work is in the style of Far Side creator Gary Larson with a Woody Allen sensibility. I don’t teach these days, I mostly exhibit in small museums. I organize a human rights speaker series – this year’s theme is Black Lives Matter. And I enjoy working in our big gardens and doing lots of domestic stuff around our home in Sheffield, MA, where we’ve lived for the past twenty years.
But what really grabs my heart are the HIO girls and families in Nepal. I was teaching at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine when I met Don Wilcox and first learned about HIO, and it sounded like a very good and direct thing to get involved in. If they’d started a program in Guatemala I’d be working there – for me it is just about the children, not about the politics or religion of the country I’ll be leaving for Nepal around November 16, so will miss the presentation of the WAM gift, but I will be cheering you on in spirit.More Info on Holy Laughter