Upon entering the reception office of Lha's headquarters on Temple Road, the first thing I notice is a giant wipe board with a carefully written hour-by-hour schedule of six different levels of English language classes that Lha offers. From the fresh smell of dry-erase markers, I can tell it is updated daily. I tell the young Tibetan woman at the desk that I have an appointment with Ngawang Rabgyal (Lha's director), and she offers me a seat. As I take it, a tall American with short-cropped hair and a beard enters the office, says he noticed the billboard-sized sign for volunteers above the entrance, and is interested. The first thing the receptionist asks him is how long he intends to stay in McLeod Ganj. "I don't know - about two weeks or so," is his response, to which she informs him that the minimum requirement for volunteers is one month. While tourist turnover in McLeod Ganj can occur at a dizzying pace - here today, gone tomorrow - most volunteer-based organizations ask for no more than a two-week minimum commitment. That Lha can afford to ask for a month speaks to how well-staffed the organization is. "We don't want students getting attached to teachers who are going to leave," the receptionist confides in me once the gentleman has left the office.
A few minutes later I am shown to the director's office and greeted by Ngawang Rabgyal, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered Tibetan gentleman (the last personality type one expects to find in charge around here, I think, considering the aggressive outreach and PR I assume Lha does). Ngawang is proof that it's the level of effort and perseverance one puts forth, not the volume of one's voice, which gets results. To begin, I ask him to sum up Lha's mission in one, all-encompassing statement. "To provide basic services to the society [of Tibetans-in-exile] - social, not political," is his response.
From English conversation classes, which have been the backbone of the organization since its inception in 1997, Lha has expanded to include computer training, cooking instruction, massage workshops, fine arts lessons, and foreign language courses, including French, Chinese, Spanish, and Tibetan (for foreigners). Of course, English language education remains Lha's top priority. With 17 current classes of six varying skill levels, around 300 students pass through Lha's classroom doors daily including monks, nuns, and lay Tibetans, around 60% of whom have been denied formal education. Over the past five years 6,000-7,000 students have studied under Lha teachers. Ngawang estimates that 60% of Lha graduates stay and work within the community-in-exile for a range of organizations from local NGOs to Tibetan restaurants. Approximately 30% go on to work abroad, while about 10% return illegally to Tibet.
The truly amazing thing about the organization is the fact that all of the 4,000 or so Lha teachers from over the years, of which there are 40 or so at a given time, volunteer their services without pay. This leads me to ask the obvious-what's Lha's secret to success? "There are no secrets as such," Ngawang assures me, besides having connections with many people. In fact, aside from advertising their volunteer opportunities online and around town, most of Lha's volunteers do the initiating (I am reminded of the American who inquired about volunteering earlier). He emphasizes the fact that Lha is a social services organization with no political affiliations, unlike many of the NGOs in Dharamsala, perhaps affording Lha a more broad appeal than other Tibetan nonprofits.
What sets Lha apart from other organizations in Dharamsala, I soon learn, are its international connections, particularly its strong ties to universities in The United States. This past year Tulane University, Loyola University, and Centenary College (all in Louisiana) together sent eleven groups of 15-20 volunteers to Dharamsala as part of Lha's cultural exchange program, where students take Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy courses, as well as volunteer for the organization. Ngawang explains, "Students coming from abroad are paired up with Tibetan students. The students from abroad teach the Tibetans English, and the Tibetan students teach them about Tibetan culture." Many of the students receive credit toward their degrees. Reciprocally, comparable groups of Tibetan students spend time studying in the United States.
When I ask Ngawang about how Lha has been so successful at establishing these partnerships with schools the US, one name comes up - Neil Guidry. Adjunct professor at the Tulane University School of Social Work and President of the Louisiana Himalaya Association (LHA - sister organization of Lha), Prof. Guidry is currently a consultant for Lha, and was its only non-Tibetan founder. It is through his tireless networking efforts, fundraising campaigns, vision of the future, and belief in the enriching effects of cross-cultural experiential learning, that Lha has been able to cultivate the relationships it has with American schools.
As we come to the conclusion of the interview, I am curious about what Ngawang sees as the future role of Lha in the exiled community. He mentions that three other countries - Taiwan, Italy, and England - are interested in partnering for cultural exchanges with Lha, then goes on to excitedly describe the new building Lha purchased only two years ago. A large guesthouse down Temple Road on the outskirts of McLeod Ganj, the building currently houses the cultural exchange program students, though Ngawang has a grander vision for it. "We are planning on having vocational training there," he says, "which will include a community kitchen and bakery." This will allow Lha to expand its educational program while creating self-sustainable fundraising. With its firm local base, extraordinary international support, and pragmatic, yet proactive leadership, it is clear Lha will be contributing to the Tibetan community-in-exile for many years to come.