From Montana to Nepal, with love
Big Sky philanthropists support Tsering’s Fund
After a long day in his Ennis dental office, Dr. Peter Schmieding sat down at his laptop and logged onto Facebook. Messages quickly popped up from supporters of Dr. Schmieding’s other “job” as facilitator of Tsering’s Fund—a Nepal-based charity he and his wife Karen Fellerhoff have dedicated themselves to.
The Tsering’s Fund story starts when the two met back in 1996. But first, some history.
Schmieding’s dental career started in Naples, Fla. where he practiced from 1981 to 1996 when he relocated to Big Sky. He was looking for a small town that needed a dentist, with an airport and university nearby, and Big Sky fit the bill. He, his then-wife, and their three boys, Matthew, Michael and Scott loaded up all their belongings in a U-Haul and headed west.
A few years later, thanks to a date set up by a mutual friend, Peter and Karen met. And that’s when Nepal became a big part of Schmieding’s life.
“I had barely even heard of Nepal really, until I met Karen,” he laughed, explaining how Karen grew up in Bozeman, attended Montana State University, and after taking a deferment from law school in Missoula to go to Nepal, “She just never came home. She lived there for almost 10 years.”
During her time in Nepal, Karen was part of several Everest expeditions, in 1983, ’85, ’87 and ’89.
“Back in the day, when it was all professionals,” Schmieding said, naming a laundry list of famous climbers Karen met along the way. That list includes Pete Hillary, the son of Sir Edmond Hillary, and Rob Hall, who lost his life on that mountain in 1996. “All of the old guard, she was part of that culture.”
While in Nepal, Karen became close friends with a woman named Tsering, “an extraordinary soul,” Schmieding said of he and his wife’s longtime friend. Tsering eventually became the namesake of the charity working toward the education of young Nepalese girls, among many other things.
“I mean, she is a Mother Theresa-type person. Everybody involved in the Tsering’s Fund, though it’s not a faith-based organization, we don’t bring religion, we just educate. The principle people involved are of great faith, but we’re of different faiths, which is very interesting,” Schmieding said. “Karen and I are Christian, Tsering is a devout Buddhist, and Vishnu, her business manager, is Hindu. So it doesn’t matter, we are all doing good things, but we are doing it because our faith tells us we should do it.”
Initially the work started with a few people paying directly out of their pockets to send young Nepalese girls (and a few boys) to school. But when Karen and Peter joined forces, bringing his business experience to the table, he saw the benefit of starting a 501c3, letting others donate to the cause. So that’s what they did in 2006.
And it’s grown leaps and bounds since then, supporting nearly 200 girls, thanks in part to the support from Big Sky. Schmieding also has a dental office here, and has described the community as “ground zero” in donor support for the fund—including his patients. Yellowstone Club residents Mary Grace Wilkus and Thomas Johnston came to mind—they’ve taken over much of the management of the fund that Schmieding just can’t tackle with his busy dental practice.
Another family, the Taylors, (think Taylors Fork, Taylor Planetarium) donated $100,000 to educate 20 Nepalese women in nursing school. One has already graduated, and a handful more are in the program. Donors can also sponsor individual children on an annual basis—a popular program that’s seen kids graduate, and donors choose to continue their support by sending the now young adults to college.
Educating Nepalese youth, especially girls, was high on their list of things to accomplish, and for good reason. As Schmieding explained, “It’s the worst country in the world for child sex trafficking. And the areas that we’re working in, that is ground zero. It’s poor subsistence farming, and girls especially don’t get educated at all, and around age 15 are usually given away in an arranged marriage, to someone they often don’t even know.”
There are other even less appealing outcomes.
“What happens is, these headhunters come, and the girls will be out working in the fields, so the headhunters come to the parents and say that they’ve found a job for their daughter, say a housekeeper in Kathmandu, and she’ll send money home every month,” Schmieding said. “So they say, ‘Ok,’ and she’s gone, and ends up in Delhi as a prostitute.”
By sending the girls to school, Tsering’s Fund hopes to accomplish two major things. One, they’ll have the same knowledge their male counterparts receive, and two, they’re not going to be taken by traffickers because they’ve got an English-speaking education from a private boarding school.
“Why would they then agree to go away to make 200 rupees a month?” Schmieding asked hypothetically. “Plus, when they get educated, their children will probably be educated too, and they can take care of their family.”
Beyond education, Tsering’s Fund also supports orphanages, calling supporters to action when funds are needed for anything from baby blankets to floor pads for judo and yoga lessons so kids don’t have to practice on concrete.
That’s what Schmeiding was checking in on after dental work was done recently, smiling as he received another donation to cover the cost for more pads. He still needed several hundred more to cover the full cost, “And I bet we’ll get it soon,” he said, looking at a photo of the pads they’d already been able to purchase. “It just depends how much time I have. People are very generous, because we’ve earned their trust.”
Schmieding makes it out to Nepal each year to see the work that’s being done, and sees the benefit firsthand in the faces of his three adopted daughters, Tashi Dawa (12), Palden Jangmu (15) and Tashi Jangmu (19). He and Karen were able to adopt the sisters several years ago due to a tragic twist of fate.
Their father was Mingmar a Sherpa, known as an ice fall doctor, and his job each night was to set ladders that allowed access over the ever-moving glaciers of Everest. In 2013, he was killed on the job, leaving behind his young daughters. But his death opened up opportunity for the girls.
Long story short, Peter and Karen had already adopted one of Mingmar’s daughters, Palden Jangmu, several years before, and were educating his other two in an boarding school through Tsering’s Fund. At that time, the U.S. government would not allow Peter and Karen to bring the other two sisters back to America since law stated that if the parents of a child are alive, a child cannot go to a specific family, rather, they have to be given away randomly.
Even with the support of friend and then U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, it was a no go. The only exception? The mother is a widow. Then, she can specify who she wants to offer her children to. And so fate, perhaps, intervened again.
“If it wasn’t for that, the girls would still be in Nepal,” Schmeiding, who figured out this loophole on his own, said. “So as soon as their father died, it allowed them to come here. Which was unbelievable. It’s almost like, if you could talk to Mingmar about it, he probably would feel good that he gave his life so that those girls would have a really great future.”
They’re still close to their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who at 96 is the oldest Sherpa woman in the world. She lives in the same hut she’s lived in her whole life, perched at 13,000 feet above sea level. “And she’s so proud of these girls,” Schmieding said, noticeably proud as well.
Schmeiding comes from a long line of dentists, but of his six kids, none have or are likely to follow that calling. But there’s still hope.
“So we adopted one more back in Nepal,” he said.
The daughter, Lahkpa Doma, might be too old to traditionally adopt. Still, Schmieding has taken her under his wing as his fourth daughter. She often Facebook messages him around the time he’s getting off work, the same time she’s getting up to start her day, to update him on her life which, wouldn’t you know it, includes dental school studies.
To learn more about Tsering’s Fund, check it out on Facebook or visit www.tseringsfund.com.