Today, we catch up with Jacqui Holth - Founder and Director of Adventurous Life Project and a woman dedicated to helping the boy who saved her husband's life in a remote village in Nepal over twenty years ago.
Years later, Jacqui and her husband went back and found the boy who had helped that fateful day had started a school which not only educates the community's children but also helps prevent the trafficking of these children which is a real problem in the area. Now, Jacqui, with the help of some friends, is helping to pay it forward. Here's her inspiring story and how we can help:
Newnham: What were you like growing up - how would your friends and family have described you?
Holth: I would say I was a pretty good kid growing up. I don’t think I caused too much trouble for my family - my little brother may think differently, but other than the odd sneaky act here and there, I was pretty well-rounded. I loved school, and sport, and most of all being outside and exploring. My parents traveled a lot, especially my dad, so I got to explore the world from a young age.
My mum was always helping out and making things happen to support others, so I think the writing was on the wall since the early days. If you ask me what others would have said about me as I was growing up, a few words spring to mind: brave, strong, determined, capable, curious, adventurous, a nature and animal lover, diligent, polite, generous, honest, caring, direct.. mostly seen as positive traits, sometimes not, for example, ‘determined’ became ‘stubborn’, you know, that sort of thing. However, I believe my parents have always been proud to call me their daughter and that was important to me from the very beginning, and still remains important to me today. They too have always made me proud and it is their belief in me since I was a child that I believe is the foundation for me knowing that what I am doing today with Bright Futures of Bardia is possible.
Newnham: How did you meet Bikram Khadka - can you take us back to the moment he came into your life and what he did? What impact did that have?Holth: Not long after meeting my husband Torstein in the Caribbean (Torstein and I met whilst working on passing yachts on the Caribbean island of Antigua in 1995), we decided to go to Nepal. We hadn’t even spent a week together when we decided to go travelling in there - it was a baptism of fire. I guess I pretty much knew he was the man for me straight away, but I hadn’t expected our lives to be brought together so dramatically. He was 29 and I was a mere 24. We decided to head for a remote region in the west of the country to raft the crazy Karnali river in a largely untouched and unexplored area with stunning scenery and incredible wildlife.
We spent 10 days rafting the river before arriving in Bardia National Park to seek out the Bengali tigers, one-horned rhinos and Indian elephants. Then Torstein got ill. We first thought it was “Delhi Belly”, the affectionate name for food poisoning, which for any of you who have traveled to Asia would be all too familiar with. It became clear over the course of the next two days that it was something more serious.
Try to picture the isolation and lack of facilities in this community. Dirty floors in the cottages where we were staying, no running water and electricity perhaps for a few hours per day, no phones, no cars, and the closest ambulance was over two hours away. The local community ‘nurse in training’ came to see what he could find... he too was unsure and was able to provide nothing more than a saline drip, but something told me I needed to get him out of there. With temperatures soaring close to 40 degrees celsius, his condition was deteriorating very quickly. I knew it was serious when he started drifting in and out of consciousness. I was beside myself with worry. There were no nearby hospitals. I needed to get Torstein to Kathmandu, but how? He was barely conscious and couldn’t walk.
The Khadka family who owned the cottage we were staying in offered to help us. Albeit that their English was quite poor, the gravity of the situation was clear, and they actioned the village to help the foreigners. Their son, Bikram, who was only a teenager, found a couple of pushbikes that he and I used to go and locate a car so we could transport Torstein by vehicle. We drove across a river in extremely difficult terrain to get to the closest airport of Nepalgunj to fly to the capital of Kathmandu. Two days later Torstein had life-saving surgery in hospital in Kathmandu to prevent his intestine rupturing into his stomach cavity. Four other foreigners I sourced from the local bar, there alongside him donating blood due to lack of blood storage facilities at the hospital. If he had stayed even one or two days later in Bardia– the doctors tell us he would have died.
The following year, in 1997, we returned to Kathmandu to thank the surgeon, the clinic and the hospital, and traveled the world to thank those who donated blood, but we never made it back to Bardia where it all began. Two years later Torstein and I got married. In 2002 we had a son – and called him Aymon “Bardia” Holth in recognition of the people to whom we owed so much.
I think the last sentence sums up the impact that the ‘chance’ encounter had on me.
Newnham: Wow. We will return to this story. In the meantime, can you tell us more about your career to date?
Holth: After graduating from Uni in Australia in 1992, I could not wait to get out and explore the world (I left for 6 months and came back 21 years later just to give you an idea). The day after I walked the stage to collect my Degree I was on a plane. I ran out of money pretty quick, as Europe was expensive in those days. I landed a job on a mega yacht in the South of France – and worked as a chef (the alternative was a stewardess and that role included ironing, amongst other things, which I detest, so I opted to cook instead, and perhaps that did involve a little bit of BS to get the job, but it seemed to work out OK). I did this for about five years on both motor and sail boats on both sides of the Atlantic, punctuated by a few ski seasons in Europe and the USA in between.
I then worked as entourage for a Saudi Arabian family for a number of years, ending up in Property and Construction Management in Italy. Yes, random I know, but my reality nonetheless. After 15 years working for the Saudi family, and with all the incredible life-defining experiences that offered me, I then moved to work as a Global Marketing Director for an Italian swimming pool company. About five years ago I resigned, after 21 years abroad and came home to Australia. I now run a couple of my own businesses, including an online health and wellness portal and more recently The Adventurous Life Project, which pulls all my passions and beliefs together. It was birthed from my philosophy that to build a healthy ‘indoors’ we need to turn to the outdoors.
My vision is that people across all generations and cultures are provided the platform and environment to find, believe and align themselves with their true selves and live their lives authentically with passion, energy, adventure and joy which brings them success, optimum health and maximum fulfillment in all areas of their lives. It starts with the kids, and a big part of Adventurous Life Project is getting teenagers to begin to explore who they really are, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Newnham: Returning to your Nepalese story. The boy who helped save your husband - Bikram - went on to start a school - can you tell us more about it and the mission behind the school? And how did you get back in touch and involved?
Holth: When our son was eleven, we took him to Bardia, which is one of the poorest communities in all of Nepal. The local family who helped us recognised my husband and I as soon as we walked in and we together embraced from our souls. They never knew if the ‘foreigner’’ survived. Bikram, the young boy who had helped me locate a vehicle to transport my husband all those years ago was now a grown man and the Principal of a small English speaking school he had set up for the community from their family home. On the spot, we pledged to help him expand the dream school he was visualising to educate the local community. I am a strong believer in the ability of one person to make a real difference, and feel it is our duty to support the ones who do that. At the time I did not know what that would look like, but there was no way I could turn my back on a family who was not only there for us when Torstein was so ill, but is there for their community.
Bikram and his father have already done an incredible job in getting the school up and running. In the year 2000, in their family home, with a vision and a little money and belief that Bikram got from an Australian donor who was visiting the area at the time, BBAS Memorial school was born. The school is creating a future of opportunities for both children whose families can afford to contribute a few dollars per month to pay for English education, as well as those who are ‘landless’ and who can’t afford to pay for education.
But the most shocking part came when Bikram explained why the school was so important. Children in western Nepal are being trafficked into India in higher numbers than ever before. Girls in particular are at risk, numbers have increased five-fold since 2013. They often end up as sex workers or in forced labour. Boys too are taken – often to work in construction under terrible conditions. Uneducated families that are poor are often preyed upon by traffickers and this is why we, together with Bikram, believe that the expansion of the school for the children of Bardia is vital. It is hard for us to even imagine one of our children being exposed to such situations, it just doesn’t enter our thoughts. But it is their reality.
Newnham: How can others help with Bardia and why is it important to do so?
Holth: I think many of us have already begun to realise that fulfillment in life does not come simply from what we do for ourselves and the experiences we undertake, but true fulfillment comes from what we give to others. And in this case what is economically so little for us living in a developed country, can have such a HUGE impact in a place such as Bardia.
Ky Furneaux (top Hollywood stuntwoman and wilderness expert), joined me on the latest trip to Bardia in September 2018. The joy on the faces and in the hearts of the children we spoke to and shared moments with, in play and in conversation will remain with us always. We even interviewed a number of children to understand what they want to do with their education. Not one of them said a new car, a new house, a holiday, or money...they all wanted to learn to be able to come back to their village with their skill set to make a difference to their community.
Bikram has created an amazing place where children are being educated, but the conditions are incredibly uncomfortable and in desperate need of an upgrade. The school now crams in over 500 students, up to 51 students in one class room, and has only 3 toilets with no running water for all of these kids..They desperately need to expand. The school has been self-sustaining for many years however, their income is not sufficient to finance the upgrade. If they cannot upgrade many children will be turned away from the school, they will not be able to open years 11 and 12 to keep kids in school longer, and the quality of the education will drop, as they are bursting at the seams.
Bikram says children who go to the BBAS school have also found jobs – and given back to the local community – some of them returning to the school to be teachers as well as returning to the community to act as guards for the national park to protect the rhinos from the poachers. Government officials around the world and numerous large aid agencies globally all agree that education is the vital key to reduce trafficking.
We are the only school in the region to teach in English. As tourism is the biggest income for the country, and English is the most widely spoken language of the tourists who come to Nepal this is also vital to their future employment opportunities. The tourism in Bardia is just starting to grow, and having educated individuals to manage that process will ensure it is done sustainably and with benefit to the local community as much as possible.
Honestly, the best way others can help right now is to support our Bright Futures of Bardia fundraising efforts to ensure that the upgrade of the school happens as soon as possible. That support may be in the form of a monetary donation through our crowdfunding platform. It may also be the organising of a fundraising event within their own community/network/work or social environment, or the donation of equipment and materials required for the science and computer labs. Spreading the word of course, liking our social media and sharing what we do with others will be very helpful, but without the money to build we cannot build, it is as simple as that. Collaboration is vital to the success of this project. Without the other wonderful individuals who have put their hand up and said, I will help you, this would not be possible. Together, we can achieve so much more.
Newnham: You have enlisted help from friends such as Ky - what impact does meeting the students have on people who visit?
Holth: I think that it has a different impact on everyone, as we all see the world differently, however what I believe is that it makes you reflect on life. I think when people set out to a place like Bardia, knowing that they are going to find poverty, knowing that they are going to find incredibly basic facilities and none of the creature comforts we have become used to in the developed world, they feel like they are the privileged ones. In fact what I think happens when you have the opportunity to spend time with these students, and observe how they interact with each other and with us as foreigners, you start to question who really are the privileged ones. It changes your perspective on your own life and creates a space to question what we value. Nobody can walk into that school and not be impacted. I have been there when a young American teenage boy came in to the school with his mother. He was immediately circled and welcomed by an entire classroom of other teenagers, curious to meet him, to see him, to hear from him, to learn from him, no judgement, just curiosity and the desire to connect. It was a beautiful thing to see, and when the boy walked out, you could see the tears in his eyes. He will never forget that moment, and nobody who goes there ever does. It is a HUGE reminder of the power of presence and connection.
Newnham: It can't be easy doing this - what drives you and how do you reconcile the emotional side of working with children who are dealing with so much themselves?
Holth: How do I reconcile? I just cry a lot. It is as simple as that. Then I breathe deep and keep moving. If you have seen the video in which I interview one of the students. At 9 years old she was attacked by a crocodile whilst she was collecting water from the small stream behind her house..her entire family jumped in to the river on top of the crocodile to save her. She survived, and so did all her family members. She wants to be an engineer to help her community. She will do whatever it takes. She needs to stay in school to do so. She is in year 10. Without these new classrooms she will have to leave school. Her parents cannot afford to send her to a big city, So she wont be able to pursue her dream unless we build new classrooms in her school. Just one little story like that, let alone the many other stories of overcoming obstacles to get to where they are are today, are more than enough to keep me moving forward even when it feels ‘hard’. Of course whether it feels hard or not depends on how we define ‘easy’ I guess?
My commitment to helping these children is unshakeable. For so many years I have enjoyed what Nepal has to offer in terms of mountains and rivers, and I know a project such as this can impact generations to come and ensure a dignified and valuable future for many children.
And..what if we CAN change the world one little soul at a time...isn’t it so very worth it?
Newnham: 100%. Finally, if you could go back in time - what advice, if any, would you give a younger Jacqui yet to embark on her adult life?
Holth: Do you know what, there is one piece of advice I would like to give a younger version of myself, and it is the same advice I give myself every day even now as a big girl...and that is.. it is OK to think you can change the world even if others think that it is not possible. It doesn’t mean you are big headed or full of yourself. In fact, in 2015 after attending a Tony Robbins event I took a really long look at what I believed about myself, and I wrote myself a reminder which sits on my wall in full view today, and if I had little Jacqui here I would paint it on her wall too, and it says… ‘I don’t have to sit down because of what someone might think of me, I have to stand up because of what I think of myself’. #thekidsarewatching
Bright Futures of Bardia crowdfunder can be found here and below. Any contribution large or small is so welcome and incredibly appreciated.
Website (launching end November)
Also - note from Jacqui - "if you have teenage kids and would like them to be involved, Ky and I are guiding a Leadership and Adventure summit to Nepal, trekking and visiting the school for a hands-on experience in April 2019. Please reach out via the Global Youth Leadership and Adventure Summit page on our website" www.adventurouslifeproject.life