Olga Murray lives half the year in Nepal. The other half, she lives in a spacious, wonderfully lived-in house in Sausalito, Calif. With its wide views of San Francisco Bay, the house makes one wonder why anyone would live anywhere else, even for a few months.
But since 1984, Ms. Murray has gone to Nepal every year but one. And in 1990 she started the nonprofit Nepal Youth Foundation, dedicated to educating children.
To date, NYF has educated more than 15,000 children, many of them girls brought out of bonded servitude. NYF has also established 16 small hospitals to restore malnourished children to health; founded two homes in Katmandu, Nepal, for destitute children; provided psychological counseling, empowerment classes, and vocational training; and successfully brought charges against abusers of bonded girls.
Last year, nearly three decades after she started her work in Nepal, Murray stepped down as president of NYF, replaced by Som Paneru, her longtime Nepalese partner.
Murray arrived in New York City at age 6, when her family emigrated from what is now Romania. After graduating from Columbia University in 1949, she landed a job with Drew Pearson, the famous Washington, D.C., muckraking newspaper columnist, answering his fan mail.
But that was a job, she says, not a career. At the same time she worked her way through The George Washington University Law School, graduating in 1954.
With her degree in hand, she moved to California to get married, and, through a series of serendipitous events, got a job at the Supreme Court of California, where she clerked for Chief Justice Phil Gibson and later for the renowned Justice Stanley Mosk. Her first and only job in law lasted 37 years.
Murray loves to travel, and she visited India in 1984. During her trip, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated.
"India was scary and depressing," Murray recalls. So she took a three-week trip to Nepal, the little country "next door."
That trip was a revelation, she says.
"I was mad about the children. They were so poor, but all of them wanted to go to school," she says. Almost 60 years old, Murray was thinking about retiring. "But I didn't want to paint my nails and eat bonbons," she says. "I was ready for something."
One night, while on a trek in Nepal at about 8,000 feet, she left her tent and came upon a hut where three little girls sat on the dirt floor, with a board in front of them serving as a desk. They had only candles for light. The girls were bent over their schoolbooks, determined to learn and to get an education.
Inspired, when she returned to her sleeping bag Murray knew she'd found her mission: Educate the children of Nepal.
How did one woman, entering retirement, make such a huge impact on this nation of 29 million people? "Olga Murray is a gutsy woman – and humble. She's open to the world," says Marybeth Bond, a National Geographic travel writer who has seen the difference Murray has made in Nepal firsthand. "Because of her optimism and persistence and enthusiasm, she moves mountains and saves children."
In 2000, NYF uncovered the practice of bonding contracts. Every year 18,000 to 20,000 girls were being bonded away by their fathers. The girls, some as young as 6, were sent away to work until they were about 16. The contracts of $50 to $60 lasted one year, but they were generally renewed. Working away from home, the daughters almost never received an education.
How could NYF persuade the fathers not to make these contracts, which many times meant their daughters would be abused by their employers? Murray's Nepalese partner, Mr. Paneru, went to villages and told fathers, "We want to educate your daughter, and we'll make it worth your while."
NYF didn't offer money, because the men might have spent it on alcohol. So Paneru offered them a piglet or a goat. (Today, NYF gives mostly goats.) "And we will pay school expenses," he told the men. If their daughters were too old to start school with the younger children, NYF would put the girls in literacy classes and then through vocational training.
Today, because of NYF's work, the custom of bonding girls has been almost wiped out and is considered disgraceful.
How did Murray do it? Many farmers in Nepal have FM radios, so she began by putting the girls who had been bonded on the radio to tell their stories of abuse.
As the girls grew up and went to college, they became activists. Through demonstrations and street plays, and through pressing for legal changes, the girls themselves brought about the shift under the guidance of NYF. Paneru filed a case with the Supreme Court of Nepal, and the court agreed that the practice was illegal.
Though lively and warm, Murray has also proved to be a formidable agent of change.
She has never taken a salary and is the only non-Nepalese working with NYF in Nepal.
In 2009, the Nepalese Parliament provided $1.6 million for the education of girls liberated from bonded labor. Under NYF's auspices, older rescued girls have formed their own nongovernmental organization. They've started lending programs, cooperatives, and their own businesses. (NYF provides advocacy, management, and legal training.)
NYF's nutrition programs have brought 10,000 mothers and malnourished children to be restored to health and then educated.
Among Murray's many awards, this year Bank Street College of Education in New York City gave Murray an honorary doctorate. Rima Shore, chair of the Educational Leadership Department, has been to Nepal and witnessed the effect Murray has had.
"At an age when most of us are hoping for a comfortable retirement, Olga Murray went trekking in Nepal, looked around her, and saw kids who lacked access to education and opportunity," Ms. Shore says in an e-mail explaining why Murray is one of her heroes.
"She didn't just write a check. Working with Nepali partners, she found immensely creative ways to provide homes and schooling and nourishment for children in need."
When asked why NYF has such a great track record, Murray answers, "We finish what we start."
Today, thousands of families know the truth of that statement. Their lives are the proof.
• For more information, visit http://www.nepalyouthfoundation.org.
Helping in Nepal
UniversalGiving (www.universalgiving.org) helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.
Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that aid children in Nepal:
• The Nepal Youth Foundation is devoted to bringing hope to the most destitute children in beautiful but impoverished Nepal. Project: Rescue a girl from captivity and send her to school.
• Nepal Orphans Home helps children in Nepal who are orphaned, abandoned, or not supported by their parents. Project: Provide clothing for children in a Nepalese orphanage.