Using Art to Rebuild Home for Former Street Kids in Nepal

Nepal Day is approaching fast at the after-school art and creativity center aptly named Press Play in the Dutch city of Haarlem.

And a dozen kids are eagerly creating their own miniature construction projects of a home far away, yet close to their hearts.

A home that was shattered and urgently needs rebuilding.

Last April, the Shangrila Home in Kathmandu that housed 80 former street children, was destroyed by the powerful earthquake that ripped through Nepal with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter's Scale.

Led by Press Play founder Nynke Hielkema, the Dutch children are working feverishly on their visions of what the new Shangrila Home should look like -- so they can start using them on the September 15th Nepal Day to raise funds for rebuilding the original one.

In the Netherlands, collecting donations for all sorts of good causes traditionally calls for the use of 'collectebussen', or collection boxes. At Press Play, the kids are creating boxes in the shape of Shangrila, which they hope to fill with generous offerings over the coming weeks.

"The people who go around with 'collectebussen' always shake them," Hielkema explains. "That's also what happened with Shangrila Home: it was shaken by the earthquake. So the children can demonstrate this as they ask people for donations."

A graduate in International Relations with a specialization in telecommunications, Hielkema, 45, changed direction mid-career. She opted to dedicate herself to art and creativity specifically in relation to children -- something for which she has always felt a strong passion.

"There will be Nepali food, dancing and singing on the day. But what counts the most is the effort the Press Play children are putting in, to help rebuild a home for youngsters about whom they feel very strongly," Hielkema tells me.

For the past four years, Hielkema has been traveling regularly to Nepal to work on creative projects with former street children in the city of Boudhanath.

"Thirty of Shangrila Home's children have been placed in the care of another two homes nearby -- Marinka Home and TiomLaura Home -- while the remaining 50 children of Shangrila have found temporary housing elsewhere," Hielkema says.

The three homes work closely together, taking in orphans, former street-children and children whose parents are too poor to care for them, or cannot cope due to severe psychiatric problems, or drug and alcohol addiction.

According to CPCS International up to 1,200 children are living rough in the Nepali capital. Many subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

Shangrila was the first of the homes to be set up. Belgian Inge Bracke got it up and running in 1995, initially housing 11 street children.

The home now gives shelter, education, medical aid, food and care to more than 80 kids. It also provides the children with professional training, offering them computer and sewing classes, as well as a ceramics project.

Lies Vink is a Dutch lady who volunteered with Bracke at Shangrila Home. She was struck by the many children living on the streets, sniffing glue and sleeping rough. One night after witnessing a fight between a few boys and a drunken lady over a mere dirty blanket, Vinkpromised herself she would to set up a home for those boys -- and others in their same predicament.

Within a week, Vink had created a home for six boys. Today, 36 children live in what is now called Marinka Home.

By 2010, Vink had raised enough funds to set up a second home. And so, Tiom Laura Home opened its doors and welcomed Chetchi Tara - a four month old baby - on Christmas Day.

She was to be the first of many children saved from a life on the streets. There are now 35 children living in Tiom Laura Home.

Hielkema first went to Nepal a year after the third home was set up, in late 2011.

I was doing creative workshops at an after-school activities center in the Netherlands, where quite a few artists worked. One of them, Laurien, used to go to Nepal every year to work with orphans, and had set up several creative projects in the field. She often told me that should I wish to go to Nepal to work with children, she could put me in touch with the right people.

Since it had always been a dream of Hielkema's to work with underprivileged children abroad, she seized the opportunity.

"The first time I travelled there, I was struck by these wonderful children; so open, eager to learn, enthusiastic and with a great sense of humour and a natural flair for the artistic," she says.

Hielkema exclaims,

I worked with them in the afternoons after they finished school, teaching them all sorts of creative techniques -- from origami to drawing self-portraits. I also helped with their homework, but they weren't the only ones learning. The children taught me so much: the value of feasts and rituals, of being a tight-knit community, of living in the moment, of caring and sharing, and the value of dancing and laughing until my sides ached!

At one point, she developed a deep bond with one particular boy, whom Hielkema soon discovered did not yet have a sponsor.

"When my husband came out to Nepal soon after and met nine-year old Cusious at Christmas, he also felt a strong connection with him. So we decided to become his Godparents."

It was a powerful moment. And a turning point.

"These children see many foreign volunteers coming and going," Hielkema explains. "Although it's wonderful that they receive attention from so many people, it's also hard for them to say goodbye over and over again. After those first two months, I vowed to be one of those persons who would come back. So the next year I came back for another four weeks. And it was so lovely to see all those eager faces again, and to spend time with all those delightful kids."

In 2014 she returned once again to Nepal, this time with a film director friend.

With the children of Marinka Home, we made a lip synch videoclip to 'Happy' by Pharrell Williams. The older children particularly told us it meant so much to them, not least because it boosted their self-confidence. It still moves me deeply every time I watch it!

Little could the children know, that less than a year later, their country would be devastated by a massive earthquake.

On that fateful day in April, despite buildings and monuments collapsing all around them, the staff and volunteers miraculously managed to bring all the children to safety in an open space where tents were eventually set up.

"They lived in fear for weeks as one aftershock struck after another," recalls Hielkema. Then on May 12, two weeks after the first, a second earthquake hit -- with a magnitude of 7.3.

This second earthquake struck when the Marinka Home children were all at a swimming pool. "Temba, the manager of the home, described it as being the most traumatic experience of that period. He said he truly felt he had lost control and was so scared the children were going to drown."

It was as if the ground had become liquid.

But everyone somehow survived even that second earthquake. Since the Marinka and Tiom Laura homes were newer buildings than Shangrila, their structures only suffered minor damages.

Shangrila Home, however, collapsed.

No one was killed, but its 80 children are still living in a variety of different housing arrangements, awaiting desperately-needed funds for the rebuilding of their home.

Wim De Becker who is involved in the reconstruction effort says they will need a total of 750, 000 euro to buy a piece of land of 1500 m2; build an earthquake-proof home for 100 children and add a playground.

Donors so far have given nearly 170,000 euro.

"I have been raising awareness via social media and doing fundraising here in the Netherlands," Hielkema says. "It would be wonderful if as many people as possible could contribute to Shangrila being rebuilt soonest."

She is due to fly to Nepal next month to help the children work through the trauma of the earthquake using creative projects.

"These youngsters have already had a rocky start in life. They really need a secure base from which to grow and develop. A home where they are nurtured, and where they can play and have a carefree childhood -- but also a place where they have the opportunity to study and acquire a profession that can lead to happy, independent lives. As happy as the children were when starring in the videoclip."

There are still many Nepali children who don't have people willing to sponsor them and provide funds for their living costs and education.

Addressing Huffington Post readers directly, Hielkema adds wistfully: "It would be wonderful if people in the United States were to become their godparents."

To find out more and make a donation to rebuild Shangrila Home here.