BC
LaMont

It’s a good thing Stephanie LaMont has always been the kind of person who doesn’t mind getting a little dirty to get the job done.

LaMont, who just started her sophomore year at Bard, spent more than four weeks this summer in Kathmandu, Nepal, as part of Bard’s Leprosy Relief Project. She lived in an eco-friendly village with a host family and several other Bard students, doing whatever it took to help people living in the community make better lives for themselves.

The volunteers were really there this summer to participate in the construction of a library for the village, but since the wood hadn’t arrived yet, they spent the first couple of days doing other things. They made briquettes -- flammable bricks for building fires and cooking -- which were made of sawdust, mud, cow dung and shredded paper. They made soap, and they gardened, weeded and harvested to make sure they had food to eat. The food was for the volunteers, too.

When the lumber arrived, they helped construct the library, in particular the roof, the walls and the shelves for the books. The walls were a mixture of cement, mug and cow dung.

The living conditions for the volunteers were better than expected, according to LaMont.

“It’s a beautiful eco-village,” LaMont said. “We were living with a family who was living there; the Bard kids had their own room. We had running water and a kitchen. It was really easy.”

What wasn’t easy early on was communicating with the locals.

“It was a little disconcerting at first because we didn’t speak any Nepali,” LaMont said. “But by the end of the first week, we’d really picked up a lot. And we learned to communicate in other ways.”

The parents from the host family spoke English, and several members of the leper colony did as well, she said. She met young men and women in the leper colony her age and spoke to them about their lives.

“A lot of them go to school and they are articulate in their views, and their religious practices,” LaMont said. “The caste system is still in place in Nepal and it’s very apparent.

“Almost every afternoon we would go and play soccer,” LaMont continued. “The goals were two rocks, and the ball was very deflated, but they were really pretty good soccer players, considering the equipment.”

Although leprosy cases have declined in Nepal over the last 10 years, it’s still there so leper colonies still exist. There were about 80 people in this colony, but not all had leprosy. Some were just people who carried the stigma of having physical deformities for reasons other than leprosy. Even people with mental illnesses are given a place there.

Twice a day, LaMont’s host “mother” would cook a meal for everyone, rice and lentils, and that got old very quickly. The Bard students tried to make pizza and pasta for their hosts, but without cheese or the proper ingredients for dough, it didn’t turn out well.

It was really grafitying to look back every week and see the progress. I wish I could have seen the library completed.
-- Bard sophomore midfielder Stephanie LaMont

As the weeks went by, LaMont and her fellow volunteers could see the impact their work was having on the village. By the end of their time there, volunteers from Canada and New Zealand had arrived and the living quarters were getting even more cramped.

“It was really gratifying to look back every week and see the progress,” LaMont said. “I wish I could have seen the library completed.”

Internet access was marginal and there was one phone on the premises, but it was expensive to make any calls. LaMont made just one phone call home to her parents, Sally Jo and Bruce, during the trip, and she heard about that later.

“I didn’t really crave communication from my friends and family while I was there,” she said. “It was more of a culture shock coming home. It certainly made me far more grateful for the opportunities I have here.

“In Nepal, friendship is based on hospitality,” LaMont continued. “People are so proud of their one-room houses, so proud of their bowl, or so proud of cooking dinner in their own home.”

Consider, too, that LaMont’s decision to attend Bard wasn’t easy. She struggled with it for weeks.

“I wanted to study photography, I wanted to be involved in some sort of community service, and I wanted to keep playing lacrosse,” she said. “In the end, Bard was really the only school that could fulfill those requirements for me.”

In an odd twist, Stephanie and her twin brother, Evan, did their college searches separately and didn’t discuss it. Stephanie did her search with her mother; Evan did his search with his father. One day they were both asked to come downstairs wearing a t-shirt touting the school they’d chosen.

They both chose Bard, although they live separate lives here. The twins ran into each other a couple of times on campus as freshmen, but the meetings were accidental.

LaMont wants to go back to Nepal, but she has other opportunities, too.

“I’m thinking about going to China next summer and teaching English,” she said. “I also may have an opportunity to go to Capetown (South Africa) to work on irrigation systems.”

In the meantime, she’ll work hard on her studies in her sophomore year, and try to lead the women’s lacrosse team to another year of growth. She led the team in scoring as a freshman.

Her interest in sustainable living and photography are coming together for her at Bard.

“I hope to use my photography to leverage people into understanding how many people are living in poor environments,” LaMont said.

And she’s willing to get her hands dirty to deliver the message.