They have been friends since primary school, were colleagues, and are now working together on a mission to better the lives of children in Nepal. Meet Joanne Yong May Pheng and Julia Lee Choi Lin, two mothers from Subang, Selangor, who make it a point to contribute to society.

In August 2018, they kick-started Project Nepal 2019, which aims to raise US$80,000 (RM330,000) to build better education and living facilities for a community of over 200 monks and kids in Balambu, in the hills of Nepal.

The fund will go towards the construction of two levels of eight bedrooms on a vacant piece of land within the grounds of the Drikung Kagyu Rinchen Palri Monastery.

It began in 2011 when Yong, now in her mid-30s, left as career in banking to volunteer at a remote monastery in Nepal. “I encountered many difficulties as a single female traveller in Nepal during my first trip there. I didn’t know anyone or understand their culture and way of life,” Yong remembers.

“But instead of being afraid or insecure living in a remote area surrounded by strangers, I was warmly welcomed and received much kindness and generosity. These acts of kindness were something I could never repay or measure in monetary terms.

Julia Lee sharing some kaya with kids from the monastery.

“That empowered me to share the kindness I received with others, in the hope that they can continue to spread the kindness that has touched them to other people,” says Yong, a full-time mum to twin boys aged two-and-a-half and now lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Yong stayed on in Nepal to teach English and maths to 60 kids and resident teachers. “I worked eight hours a day, which wasn’t even enough. There was so much work to be done there, especially with the number of children increasing each year,” shares Yong, who was back in Malaysia recently.

Since then, she has returned to the monastery every year to assist them in various capacities. “Due to extreme poverty in the area, the monastery takes in young children each year and provides them with access to education and basic necessities like food and shelter,” Yong explains.

The kids are aged between four and 18, and come from Nepal and northern India. “However, the monastery has had to turn down the young children due to resource constraints, which affects the children’s education and well-being,” Yong adds.

Yong, who volunteers with the Australian Government and works with refugees, teaching them English and helping them to assimilate into Australian society, then teamed up with Lee, also in her mid-30s, to start Project Nepal 2019.

Joanne Yong (right) and Lee giving out medical aid to the kids.

“We have known each other for over 20 years, and are both passionate about working with children. We share the same sentiment that kindness changes lives,” Yong says.

Lee had always wanted to get involved in a project that made ad a significant impact on kids, but didn’t know how to get started.

“That’s when Joanne approached me and said the monastery needed help. We went to Nepal to look at the monastery and realised they needed funds to build a new space for the children’s education and shelter,” says Lee, a business development manager at an independent power-producing company.

Every year, there is an increasing number of boys who go to the monastery. “The institute is committed to preserving Buddhism studies and practice, which is contributing to the survival of the spiritual and cultural tradition of Tibet,” says Lee, who has a 16-month-old son and is expecting her second child.

She adds that when they went to the monastery, they brought daily necessities for the children, such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrush and biscuits.

Lee (left) and Yong have been friends since school. Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

“Their faces lit up immediately upon receiving these small items. They were so appreciative of our gesture that it made me realise that a simple act of kindness can bring so much love and warmth,” says Lee, who volunteers at orphanages and animal shelters in Malaysia.

“Furthermore, when we were staying in the monastery, electricity and water supply was scarce, which is never an issue in Malaysia. It made me realise that we have been so accustomed to the blessings in our daily life that sometimes we overlook it and take things for granted.”

Phase One of Project Nepal 2019 is to build a two-storey dormitory for the kids that is engineered to withstand natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, and provide hospitable living conditions.

“If we exceed our target, we will enact Phase Two and include a communal bathroom in the design. Right now, the children have to take their baths outdoors, which can be very cold in winter,” says Yong. So far, they have raised over US$18,000 (RM73,500).

“During my first trip to Nepal, it really changed my whole perception of being happy, kind and sharing what we have with others,” says Yong. And it’s not just giving money but also about empowering children through education, which then gives them a better future. If not, they might end up doing drugs on the streets or be exposed to child-trafficking.”

For details, email projectnepal2019@gmail.com or go to mycause.com.au and search for Project Nepal 2019.