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Interview with ‘Calls Over Ridges’ Founder Lin Tzu-chun

Founded NGO to Help Nepalese Earthquake Victims Stay in School

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Founded NGO to Help Nepalese Earthquake Victims Stay in School

Source:Cheok Kei Kuan

Just 24, Lin Tzu-chun is one of Calls Over Ridges’ co-founders. Beyond the widely shared story of the organization’s founding on the Internet, people are especially keen to know more about this young man’s transformation, just a year out of university, from a confused student uncertain about the future to the driving force behind this NGO.

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Founded NGO to Help Nepalese Earthquake Victims Stay in School

By Cheok Kei Kuan / Crossing Editorial Staff
Crossing@CommonWealth

As I enter the Calls Over Ridges’ co-working space in the Taipei Technology Building, the crew from an interview that has just concluded is busily packing up microphones and gear. Apparently, Calls Over Ridges, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works on educational projects in Nepal, is becoming increasingly well known on the Internet thanks to more media interviews.

This has certainly helped with its latest (third) round of donations, which generated 38 percent over the target goal in just a short time.

Calls Over Ridges has established a strong educational presence in Gorkha, Nepal, helping lower the local school dropout rate from 42 percent to just two percent over the past three years, ensuring that over 1,000 children are able to receive an ongoing education.

Just 24, Lin Tzu-chun is one of Calls Over Ridges’ co-founders. Beyond the widely shared story of the organization’s founding on the Internet, people are especially keen to know more about this young man’s transformation, just a year out of university, from a confused student uncertain about the future to the driving force behind this NGO.

First Nepal Visit Fraught with Insecurity and Confusion

Bubbly and adventurous, Lin Tzu-chun was the captain of his university’s soccer team as well as an avid photographer and member of the school’s drink mixing club. He has often been known to grab a backpack and take off for a trek deep within the mountains at a moment’s notice, and has climbed Taiwan’s most prominent peaks from Mt. Hehuan to Qilai Mountain and Yushan, Taiwan’s tallest mountain.

Apart from outdoor adventuring, like other university students, he enjoys overseas travel, having already visited many places such as Japan, Vietnam, Tibet, Nepal, and Europe.

It is an insatiable curiosity about the world that drove Lin to venture to alien lands. Eight years ago, while a freshman at Taichung Second High School, he traveled to Gorkha on a 10-day trip with the International Cultural Educational Foundation (ICEF). While on this trip experiencing life as a volunteer, he and the other group members sang and danced with local elementary school students, and taught them rudimentary English and handicrafts.

That excursion to Nepal gave him a glimpse of many cultures and conventions he had never before encountered. After some time, he began reflecting on impact the activities with the children had on them, wondering “Can this really bring about change for them?” However, still just 16, Lin could not find answers to the unease and confusion on his mind.

Return to Nepal Brings Clarity

After graduating high school, Lin Tzu-chun placed into the economics department at National Taiwan University. Yet the allure of attending a top school failed to get Lin excited about his studies. Given his lack of passion for economics, he opted to concentrate his energies on extracurricular activities beyond the university. Still harboring considerable concern for Nepal, his mind was nonetheless filled with questions.

During his freshman year, he returned to Nepal as a short-term volunteer, but the program content and format were essentially the same as the first time, mostly singing and dancing.

This time he was finally able to clarify his confusion: Educational content like singing and dancing by short-term volunteers in developing regions has barely any local impact. Many volunteers, seeing the children before them with tattered clothes, poor hygiene and sanitation, no lights, and no libraries, find themselves developing a strong sense of empathy with the locals, thinking ‘I should buy them some clothes, lest the children catch cold.’

However, the issues visible on the surface perhaps touch upon such deeper questions as the educational environment, poverty, and cultural norms - issues that cannot be resolved overnight by an article of clothing or treating kids to a big meal.

Realizing the limitations on what short-term volunteers can accomplish, and their inability to help local children in fundamental ways, the idea of “long-term assistance” germinated in his mind. As the saying goes, “Give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.” Hence, improving local education would be the most direct approach to making substantive changes.

After returning from Gorkha, Lin learned that several of his classmates had also served as international volunteers, including Tsai Wan-ting, who would subsequently become his NGO co-founder. On the same wavelength, the two became fast friends, often getting into involved discussions day or night about long-term aid mechanisms for remote areas.

One table, a white board, and the homely Economics Department office became the incubator of their dreams.

Devastating Earthquake Stirs Action

Noticing the problem is merely the first step; solving it is the key. Just as Lin and his associates were thinking hard about how to go about enacting solutions, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck Nepal in April of 2015, resulting in around 9,000 deaths and over 9,000 injured.

So powerful was the quake that the Dharahara, a nine-story tower and historical landmark in central Kathmandu, collapsed into its foundation, leaving just one story above ground. And the epicenter of the big quake was none other than Gorkha, where Lin set up his volunteer services.
 
That quake only fortified Calls Over Ridges’ determination further. Responding rapidly, they initiated their first public fundraising plan, asking NTU students to set aside NT$60 each month, the cost of a beverage, to help Nepal get back on its feet. Their efforts eventually extended to 350 students across 44 colleges and universities, whose donations over a six-month period helped 40 children return to school.

The dropout rate in Gorkha was lowered from 42% to 2% over three years. Source: Courtesy of Calls Over Ridges

During the summer holiday that year, Calls Over Ridges led its first tier of 30 Taiwanese youths to Nepal. They recognized the difficulty of short-term volunteers successfully carrying out long-term educational projects. But that did not mean that they would not make a tangible contribution, for as long as one accomplishes every task, the overall program can move forward.

When they do not have a deep enough grasp of locals’ needs, volunteers should do a “deep dive of needs.” Each volunteer is assigned to one child, and accompanies the child home to conduct a domestic interview, using  a questionnaire and qualitative interview methods to achieve a full picture of each aspect of local families’ lives, such as food, shelter, and other necessities.

Leveraging Economics Knowledge to Better Understand Local Needs

Lin Tzu-chun had no clear goals for the future before founding Calls Over Ridges, but he had the feeling that it would be impossible to apply the knowledge he learned studying economics at NTU to his interests. Disinterested in his studies, rather than concentrating on courses that failed to excite him, he felt it better to spend more time encountering new things while traveling.

That academic malaise endured until his junior year, when NTU Economics Department Chairman Lin Ming-jen came to Lin Tzu-chun to propose a cooperative research project that would involve conducting a rigorous analysis of the living conditions of Nepalese children and their performance at school.

The economics department team was prepared to offer professional research methods as well as follow-up analytical models to gauge if any substantive help had been rendered to the locals.

With the help of the department chairman, the team identified even more deeply rooted problems. For instance, they found that, due to malnutrition, there was a high death rate among young children, with many not making it past the age of three. Poverty blinded parents from seeing the long-term importance of education, deeming it better for children to make money moving bricks around as early as possible.

This is when Lin Tzu-chun had a lightbulb moment and realized that a considerable amount of knowledge acquired through his studies in economics could be applicable to NGO work.

The better he understood various local needs, the more Lin Tzu-chun realized the errors of his existing ideas regarding education. Yet he treated each setback as an opportunity. “We put together a local library. It was a fine space, filled with the highest caliber English-language books. Yet no children used it.” That was because locals were not in the habit of reading, no matter what the language.

This is when they learned that rather than establishing resources, they should use an educational model designed to establish “systems” and habits. In other words, first cultivate interest in reading among the children, then provide the resources.

One other time, Calls Over Ridges tried distributing emergency relief funds to local families affected by the earthquake to help children return to school. “This project was not as effective as expected, because the money was given directly to the parents, who didn’t necessarily spend it on education,” Lin relates.

With this in mind, they established a new remote area educational service model. Known as the “Educational Planting Program”, it included four aspects: raising educational funds to help children from poor families receive a long-term education, enhancing internal motivation by enlisting successful individuals living in the capital who grew up in remote villages to speak in order to help stimulate children’s imaginations regarding the future, establishing learning resources, and encouraging family participation, such as holding parents’ days and family forums so that parents become education boosters.

Undaunted by Setbacks

Over the last four years, their model has achieved superb results, including 98 percent of students continuing on to a higher grade, while the dropout rate has been lowered to just two percent. Through countless setbacks, Calls Over Ridges has turned crises into opportunities, and through them Lin has only become clearer about what he is most passionate.

“When you discover that, no matter how many times you fail at something, yet you keep doing it, that’s what you’re truly passionate about,” he exclaims.

Lin observes that today’s university students are subject to all kinds of pressure, ranging from family, to friends, and societal expectations. They are required to set the course for their lives within a short period of time. And if they are uncertain about what they truly want to do once they are out in society, they can end up frustrated at “working for others every day, and frequently failing to finish anything.”

Lin Tzu-chun encourages university students to spend time on things they are genuinely passionate about. If they do not have a major passion, then they should make the best of their time as students to encounter people from different industries and fields to get a better feel of where their interest lies.

Turning attention toward the current generation of youths’ disgust for the world, Lin said he felt that is just an attitude. “You can feel disgusted by the world, but you have to take action.” What matters is not what you think, but what you do.

Translated by David Toman
Edited by Tomas Lin



Crossing 
features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also Crossing Arab World.

Original content can be found at the website of Crossing: 20 歲創辦 NGO,讓尼泊爾的孩子重返校園──專訪「遠山呼喚」共同創辦人林子鈞

This article is reproduced under the permission of Crossing. It presents the opinion or perspective of the original author / organization, which does not represent the standpoint of CommonWealth magazine.

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