This is my interview with Beau Miller, the executive director of Aythos, a non-profit organization he founded seven years ago to implement economic development projects in remote Himalayan villages in Nepal.
Since 2012, Aythos volunteers and local staff have trained hundreds of farmers – including women – and helped plant thousands of fruit and nut trees, which provide nutritious food and critical income for villagers. I first interviewed Beau after the devastating April 2015 earthquake, and recently asked him to provide an update on Aythos’ reconstruction efforts and ongoing agricultural work.
How has Aythos’ mission changed since the earthquake?
Until the beginning of this year, we were almost entirely focused on relief and reconstruction projects. Thanks to some great donors and fundraising efforts by our board members, we were able to deliver bags of cement to several villages so they could put that toward rebuilding their homes. We also passed out 155 blankets to school children in a particularly impoverished area. Their families are still living in shelters that leave them very exposed to the elements, and winter in the Himalayas can be pretty brutal.
We sponsored the construction of several greenhouses in two communities, but this was different than our usual model – Aythos sponsored the whole thing. It didn’t make sense to ask for the usual 50% buy-in when people have so many expenses to consider now. We wanted to make sure villagers displaced from their lands still had the opportunity to grow vegetables and stay healthy, and as long as they were willing to make it happen, we were willing to fund it.
How has life changed in the communities where you work?
The earthquakes had a massive effect on these communities. First, their houses, and in many cases, their livelihoods, were completely destroyed. Some communities we work with were displaced from their lands out of fear of landslides. A year later, people are still living in “temporary” shelters – essentially a few metal sheets and wood beams shaped to form a little hut. Life is very much at a standstill.
Schools were leveled and remain down, though classes are now being held in tents or other temporary structures. Community centers, monasteries and temples – structures that are really instrumental to communities – were wiped out. Villages lost access to drinking and irrigation water, in some cases. Really, the only things that weren’t destroyed were the fruit trees Aythos has planted over the years. And the fruit from these will be very important in funding long-term reconstruction.
What has the past year been like for you, as well as Aythos staff and volunteers?
It’s been a busy year, but also it has just flown by. Obviously, my heart is still in Nepal, but I’ve been juggling my Aythos responsibilities with a paying job.* That’s been pretty taxing, and in a way, it’s more difficult than being on the ground and leading things in Nepal. Our team in Nepal is still going out to the field every week, visiting different villages and implementing projects. In many ways, they never skipped a beat, though the earthquakes were a very traumatic experience for them.
Even I forgot that even while they were helping carry out relief and reconstruction efforts, they were also survivors. It’s a real testament to their strength and desire to help others. And actually, a good-news story, one of our Female Engagement Coordinators, Shanti, just got married, so it’s great to see our staff moving forward with their lives while still helping others.
Our volunteers have returned back to their homes and families, and I think their time in Nepal inspired each one of them to continue to serve in their own way. Some will be returning to Nepal to help reconstruction efforts. Others are applying their experiences to new careers. It’s been great to see some of them recognized for their work with Aythos, but everybody who was over there with us can look back at what they did and be proud.
* Beau works in the international development field in Washington, D.C.
What are your goals for the coming year for Aythos and the communities where you work?
Well, through our work in the earthquakes, we made a lot of new friends in Nepal, and we want to help all of them get their communities back on track. We’re helping some grow nutritious vegetables. We’re helping others start new ventures, like tea plantations. We’re spearheading new women’s empowerment programs and supporting youth initiatives in organic agriculture. These are going to be extremely important in rebuilding local economies, and in most cases, making them even stronger than they were before the earthquake.
As we’ve known, each village has its own set of unique opportunities and challenges, and we’ll be taking the time to work with each one to support them in the best way we can. We are extremely excited to have five agriculture specialists visiting us over the course of the year. These are students from UC Davis and Berkeley, and another from Houghton College, who will each deliver tailored training to villagers in their specialty to help develop skills on topics from orchard maintenance to marketing.
We hope that opens the door for new partnerships with American, Nepali and international organizations, but if I can take this opportunity to make an appeal, we still need our individual donors that supported us immediately after the earthquakes to chip in and help finish the work we started.
What are your thoughts on the earthquake response efforts by the government, NGOs and others?
The earthquakes drew a lot of amazing people, and I have to say the most effective organizations were the smallest ones, managed by volunteers. These groups worked tirelessly to scout out areas, do needs assessments and get relief materials where they were needed. We were really proud to work with some of them. We were also really proud to see the U.S. military airlifting supplies to remote areas. They used to fly right over our office on their way out and back from relief missions, and it was sad for all of us when we heard that an American helicopter crashed, killing all aboard during one of these missions.
The UN’s Humanitarian Air Service was awesome. They loaned Aythos a helicopter on two occasions – for free – to get medical supplies and reconstruction materials to remote areas when landslides took out the only roads.That was extremely generous.
I don’t want to disparage the work of any organization or government entity, but the one thing that came out is that if you don’t know the land and you don’t know the people, you’re wasting time in resources. The government was not prepared for the influx of relief workers and materials, and other groups just didn’t know how to work locally and get their skills to where they were needed.
To be successful in times of tragedy, there needs to be cooperation at all levels, from the individual to the institutional. I learned that hard way in some cases, but at the end of the day it’s about helping other people and you have to learn and carry on.
I’m so sad when this kind of tragic events are happening to people, no matter on which side of the world. I can consider myself lucky so far, because I live in a very safe country when it comes to this. However, I’m happy that they are not going through this alone, and that there are people willing to help, without asking for something in exchange. This proves there are still a lot of good people out there. 🙂
Aythos sounds like a wonderful organization. As someone who spent a year living in a developing country and seeing the successes and failures of a lot of organizations who were trying to enlist help, I can definitely understand Beau’s assertion that you really need to know the community you are working with to make a positive impact. Some large organizations go into communities and try to help by using strategies that have worked in other countries without paying attention to the unique needs of the local communities they are in. This can end up doing more harm than good.
Thank you for introducing us to the Beau Miller and the Aythos Organization. We’ve never been to Nepal but I imagine how devastating the earthquake was. This was such a great interview because he was able to explain all the little details that goes into these types of relief efforts and encourages more people to help because help really is needed. Fantastic piece and interview. Thank you for sharing.
How wonderful to make a hands-on difference. I hope that as disasters happen lessons will be learned. Interesting that you found the smallest groups were often the most effective.
This is an amazing glimpse into the good and hard work that goes into relief efforts. Much respect and love to Beau Miller and the Aythos Organisation, I hope to contribute in the same way someday.
Aythos sounds like a wonderful organization. It’s so great that there are these types of organizations that can give a hands on approach to helping in disastrous situations. Really great interview with a lot of interesting and helpful information! Thanks for sharing!
A great story and Aythos is an organization well worth sharing with everyone. It’s great to hear about the work they are doing to support the community.
So glad to learn of the good work that Aythos is doing to help the people of Nepal after the earthquake. Agree that it’s so important for such an organization to have local knowledge and resources for maximum impact in helping the community.
Thanks for the introduction to Beau and Aythos – they’re doing such wonderful work. I love that the work they’re doing is both practical and sustainable – it’s this kind of relief which actually makes a long term change.