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Difference Maker

Helping orphans, Tibetan and Chinese alike

Tendol Gyalzur returned from exile to provide homes for children in her native Tibet

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Another 63 children of nomadic herders live in a third center in western Sichuan Province, which Gyalzur started in 2002. The three centers operate on $280,000 annually from private donors in the United States and Europe.

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Entering the orphanage in Shangri-La on a weekend, one finds children playing basketball in the front courtyard, while teenagers cook in the kitchen or wash clothes. They welcome visitors with group songs and dances in a new performing arts space.

On a weekday at the orphanage in Lhasa, children under 6 are studying English and Chinese. Older children are at school.

Foreign universities send students to volunteer at Gyalzur's orphanage in Shangri-La. The Lonely Planet guidebook recommends it as one of 10 organizations fostering awareness of Tibet and aiding the Tibetan people. "I have been helping Tendol since 2001, and she is one of the most amazing, selfless women I have ever met," says Rick Montgomery, executive director of Seattle-based Global Roots.

He first met Gyalzur while traveling in China. Her work inspired him to start Global Roots, which supports charities across the world. Since 2001, Global Roots has provided food, blankets, kitchen supplies, and bicycles to Gyalzur's charity. In 2008, Mr. Montgomery visited the center in Shangri-La and delivered winter clothes to each of Gyalzur's children, including new shoes and winter parkas.

Though inspiring, Gyalzur's work also strained her family life. Her elder son, now an adult, says he resented his mother when she disappeared for months to work in China.

"We were quite angry with her," says Songtsen Gyalzur. While his mother was away, he helped his father cook and sell shabales – Tibetan beef patties –­ outside a mall in Zurich to raise money for the orphanage.

"All my friends went skiing or ice-skating on weekends, and I was making shabales for the orphans," he now chuckles.

Mrs. Gyalzur's family eventually came around. Her husband quit his factory job in Switzerland and moved to China. Last year, her son sold his Swiss real estate company to assist as well. Songtsen started a car repair shop in Shangri-La and has invested about $50,000 in two restaurants that provide jobs for eight adult orphans from his mother's centers.

"They look at my parents like they're their parents, so in a way they're like my brothers and sisters," Songtsen says during an interview at So Ya La, one of his Tibetan cafes.

Most children at Gyalzur's centers arrived via government agencies who contact her when a parentless child is reported to authorities.

Yishi Dolma was 10 when she was found 17 years ago living alone in the street about 50 miles outside Lhasa. Moving into the orphanage "was like having a family and a home," says Ms. Yishi Dolma, who is the full-time "house parent" at the Shangri-La orphanage. The Lhasa orphanage also has two house parents who live on-site.

"Don't feel sad that we don't have parents, because we don't think of it like that," says Duoma Lamu, a 16-year-old at Gyalzur's center in Shangri-La who hopes to attend university in a few years. "Tendol is our mother." •