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Alumnus Jerry Golphenee Brings Solace to Suffering Children in Kathmandu
During the first two weeks of a two-year dentistry assignment in Nepal, Judy and Jerry Golphenee (B '62, GPC) couldn't wait to leave. They had never witnessed such extreme poverty, horrible sanitation systems, dirty streets, sub-par health-care facilities, and rampant political corruption.
The couple didn't stay for two years after all, but not because they gave up and stole away to an early retirement. Eleven years later, they remain living and working in Nepal with no intention of leaving anytime soon. Why the change of heart? "The answer is simple," Jerry says. "It's the children."
Today the Golphenees run a flourishing nonprofit agency called Children of Kathmandu. The organization sponsors 54 children, providing tuition, books, uniforms, food, lodging, medicine, clothing, and most importantly, love and support, all from a couple whose journey to Nepal was never part of their life plan.
After earning his bachelor's degree in biology from George Pepperdine College in 1962, Jerry decided to pursue dental school; he was both a husband and a father by graduation. Jerry practiced dentistry in California, Colorado, and Montana before, in October 1992, his office caught fire. With Judy by his side, he watched helplessly as it burned to the ground.
In the wake of their loss, the Golphenees saw a chance to do something different with their lives. "Our youngest child was a senior in college and we decided to look into dentistry around the world rather than rebuilding," Jerry recalls.
The couple soon packed their bags and traveled across the globe to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where Jerry became chief of dentistry in a hospital serving the Royal family and high-level government officers. "I treated some of the richest people in the world," he remembers.
That experience was a stark contrast to what they would find in their next destination. In 1996 Jerry and Judy arrived in Nepal where, after three years among royalty, they found themselves surrounded by some of the poorest people in the world.
Jerry spent his first days trying to understand the lowly circumstances in the home of Mt. Everest, the world's highest peak. "Nepal would be a poor country under any system," he observes. "It is a landlocked country far from any shipping ports and it has no raw materials or minerals of significance."
He also encountered new and challenging elements in the spiritual beliefs of Nepalese people. "The Nepal version of Hinduism believes each 'soul' has 8,400,000 lives, or reincarnations. The fatalistic attitude of this life being one of 8.4 million results in little incentive to try to improve life."
Still, Jerry and Judy couldn't stand by and watch lives so desperately in need of improvement go without it. "Shortly after arriving in Nepal, Judy and I determined that any significant change, any lasting contribution, was through children and education."
They began by helping a young widow take care of her two children. Ten years later, the Golphenees have become heroes to 54 young Nepalese children in need of their support.
"Our children all come from extremely poor families and many have tragic backgrounds," says Jerry, who has witnessed innocent and defenseless children suffer the worst kind of heartache and injustice.
"Mamata was six years old when she watched her mother pour kerosene on herself and light the match," Jerry says of one of the agency's children. "Her brother and sister, ages 7 and 8, were not at home at the time but returned in time to see their burnt mother die a few hours later. The father was in prison and nobody would let the three children live in their home. The neighbors collected money, bought a cheap bathroom scale to measure weight, and sent them off to live on the street with measuring people's weight for three to five cents as their source of income."
This is just one sad story of many in Nepal, but every small victory is a step in the right direction, and that's what keeps Jerry and Judy going.
"Today Mamata is first in her class out of 90 students," Jerry praises. "Her brother, Ajay, was third of 80 students and Sujita is an average student. They live in our hostel, have clean clothes and good beds, showers and flushable toilets, and they eat well, under kind and loving supervision. Ajay told the hostel matron, 'We used to live in hell and now we live in heaven.'"
Approaching his 12th year in Nepal, Jerry's life is nothing like what he envisioned as an undergraduate at Pepperdine - a young man known for truancy from chapel and a two-week suspension his junior year.
"Pepperdine's influence had a delayed effect upon my spiritual thinking," comments Jerry, who has made Children of Kathmandu an instrument for Christian outreach as well. "We provide bibles, tracts and lessons in Nepali, training and correspondence courses, bicycles for preachers, and build meeting halls in villages."
Though his path has been uncertain at times, Jerry says he wouldn't have it any other way. "Maybe my office burning down was one of our greatest blessings in disguise," he reflects. "God's providence took us to a country where we would never choose to live, but at the same time presented us with opportunities and challenges that have given our lives new purpose and direction."
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