by Dawne Belloise
Amber Thompson thought she grew up in a small town until she moved to Crested Butte. “Rochester, Minnesota, was only 100,000 people but it felt small,” smiles the young woman who would go on to even smaller, very remote mountain villages halfway around the globe.
Throughout her childhood and into high school in the land of 10,000 lakes she played soccer year-round, traveling extensively to competitive games. When she graduated from high school in 2002, Amber moved west to Chandler, Ariz., just outside of Phoenix, with a boyfriend whose parents lived there. The northern clime girl lasted only a year there because, she remembers, “It was really hot. It’s like an oven.” Since she was mostly traveling around to see concerts, following Phish, and working odd jobs, the free spirited 19-year-old decided to bolt out of the hot desert and head back to Minnesota’s cooler weather.
“I have a lot of really good friends there so I ended up moving to the fun city of Minneapolis. If the mountains were in Minneapolis I would live there because I love that city. There’s so much music and there are so many venues,” she says.
Working at a downtown sports bar for four years, she felt it was time for a change, and yet another boyfriend persuaded her to visit the western mountains. “I went on vacation to Colorado for String Cheese concerts with some friends, and wound up hitting Arizona again and then Maui, and ended up flying into Gunnison to meet my friends.”
Amber arrived during off-season. “I had no clue as to how small it was. I was used to a city but my friend convinced me to randomly move here,” she says of her first visit to Crested Butte and she admits joyfully, “The move here was a great move. It changed everything.”
“In Minneapolis, I was going to concerts every day, taking cabs, out until 2 a.m., then going to eat at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m.—the city just doesn’t sleep. Here, everyone takes a break from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m., there’s nothing open or anything going on. There aren’t even cops patrolling at that time. Your life just slows down here.”
Amber claims that she doesn’t really miss any of that wild city life. “I love that you can’t just have everything accessible at any given moment. It makes you realize that you don’t need as many things as you think you need.”
A bit over eight years ago when she arrived, Amber moved into a little apartment on the edge of town on a Tuesday, went searching for work on Thursday and started at McGill’s the following Monday. “I’m still there,” she says about her steady job, “eight and a half years and still going strong. I could never imagine not working there or not being a part of it. My boss, Jamie Timmons, is wonderful and he’s been my boss the whole time.”
As a side job, Amber also cleans the homes of a few select clients. Like others who wound up heeding to the call of Crested Butte, she realized, “Everything about Crested Butte grew on me. I knew I wanted to be in a small town and I knew I was in a small town when I realized there were no stop signs or traffic lights for at least a half hour coming into town. Everyone is part of the world, making it go round, and you feel that so much more here. In the city, everyone’s so expendable. That’s how you feel, but here, everyone’s on equal footing. You appreciate everyone, from your waitress to your mail deliverer to your lawyer. You don’t really feel the class differences in the locals.”
Other than Canada and Mexico, Amber had never left the country for any exotic destinations, but having worked with some of the many Nepalese Sherpas who reside in Crested Butte, she became fascinated with their culture, their stories and why they chose Crested Butte as their home. She booked her first flight to Nepal in 2014.
“Once you go to Nepal and get up into those small villages, you can understand why they (Sherpas) are attracted to Colorado, because it’s very similar. I went for three months, primarily to trek the Annapurna Circuit but a deadly avalanche detoured me to the Khumbu region, the Nepalese side of the Everest region.”
Amber hiked up to Namche Bazaar, the largest village before beginning the Everest ascent. “I hiked for ten days in the Khumbu region before heading to Annapurna, after they had reopened it from the avalanche.” At 18,000 feet, and throughout the 17 days of trekking, Amber experienced a different landscape daily. “One day you’d be in the jungle, the next you’d be in the pines and then you’d be up in rocks and snow and real cold. Once you’re over the pass, on the other side it’s a bizarre desert.”
And that’s when she knew she’d be returning. Factors like the country’s incredible beauty, affordability and the friendly, peaceful people solidified her plans to return. “They’re so happy and grateful for everything they have. It changes you as a person to see that and experience it.” Amber was enamored of the Nepalese and their culture, and as soon as she got home, she bought a return plane ticket for that October.
At the end of April, several months before Amber was to return to Nepal, a massive earthquake devastated parts of the country. After ascertaining that all her friends over there were okay, Amber broke down. “I knew right then I had to do anything I possibly could to help. I knew how little everyone had to begin with, the already too little resources and infrastructure they had—water and food—there was so much poverty there already that if people lost anything it would take so long to recover from it. I felt the helplessness for these people. I could only imagine how awful it was for them.”
Amber went into action, planning various fundraisers that would benefit the people directly. The first was called Hiking for the Himalayas. “Trevor Bona and I set out to hike ten mountains around Crested Butte, placing Nepalese flags and prayer flags on each mountain and asking for donations through sponsors. People’s responses were amazing. We raised $3,000. In a small town like [Crested Butte], if something tragic like an earthquake happened, everyone would rally and help each other to continue to live here. It would be devastating to have to live somewhere else because you couldn’t live in your home, your destroyed town. And that’s what I wanted to convey, I wanted to go to Nepal to help them rebuild in their own communities.”
The second fundraiser immediately followed on the success of the first, when Amber created the Namasté Package.
“When you say the word namasté it’s more than a just greeting,” she says of the blessing. The package included a tee shirt she designed that showed the Colorado state flag as a heart and the Nepalese flag as the “E” in Nepal,” essentially conveying that Colorado “hearts” Nepal.
There was also a roll of Nepalese prayer flags, a namasté sticker and a post card of the children she met while traveling there. The package cost $25, with all the donations going directly to needs of the Nepalese people affected by the quake. With donations in hand, Amber left for Nepal.
“I wasn’t quite sure exactly where to put the donations. I had a goal of spreading it around. There was a home for the elderly in a Hindu temple I had visited and I also wanted to help kids. Just like little children, old people need someone to take care of everything for them. I really wanted to do something for those elderly from my first trip there.”
But because there’s much corruption in the publicly run homes that want you to donate cash or expensive items that they can then sell and oftentimes pocket the profits, Amber decided to give something more personal that the elders could cherish for that moment, that could never be robbed from them.
She chose to give the gift of time—of conversation in recurring visits along with some sweet treats, sort of like sitting down with a good friend for conversation, tea and cookies. When she saw how much the residents of the home liked it, Amber hired two of her trustworthy Nepalese friends to continue the practice, and she now personally pays for the program with her own money. “These are elderly orphans,” she says respectfully.
Back in Kathmandu, Amber met Crested Butte local transplants Futi and Changba. “They got me connected with a school in Kathmandu that had to move all the classrooms outside for safety after the quake. Some classrooms were in tents, and some they had rebuilt. Their next project was to build classrooms to replace those in the tents. Monsoon season had been difficult in tents and it’s too hot during the day.”
Amber thought it would be greatly beneficial to put part of the funds toward those classrooms. She then volunteered for six weeks, helping through consultation, organizing, and actually teaching classes. She showed teachers how to make simple crafting projects for the kids, how to utilize all their resources and materials, including recycled stuff. She helped them, using her Crested Butte innovation, by demonstrating easier teaching methods and how to make learning more stimulating for the kids.
Afterwards, she headed to the Everest region once again, to Sengma, where the owners of Crested Butte’s local Sherpa Café hail from.
“It’s a steep climb up and they needed their trail to be rebuilt because of the earthquake and monsoon season, and I decided to use some of the money to rebuild it. The kids use the trail to get to school, and the elderly and animals use it daily.”
Amber also says rebuilding trails has spiritual significance for the Nepalese and those who do it are blessed. “Just imagine if everything in Crested Butte had to be brought in either on yaks or backs,” she says, offering a visual comparison. “We hired ten local villagers, who broke all the rocks and built the trail in ten days. We bought them each new clothing afterward.”
The villagers took to Amber and one family offered her a space on their property to build a one-room hut she could return to. “I’m really excited about this. And I’ll return to build the next third of the unfinished trail.” She explains that they didn’t have sufficient funds to finish the entire trail but she plans on returning yearly until it’s finished. “My ultimate goal is to live in Nepal four months a year, every spring and fall. Their peak trekking season is during Crested Butte’s off-season so it works out perfectly. Every day, all I think about is going back. Their sense of life is so different. They take life to another level. They work hard daily but take leisure time and it’s important to them to spend time with and take care of their family and their elders.”
From Sengma she returned to Kathmandu for another two weeks of volunteering back at the school before returning home on December 19.
The imbalance between the consumerism of the season and the poverty and devastation Amber witnessed in Nepal was overwhelming upon her return to the U.S. “They struggle every day in Nepal. Just imagine if you couldn’t even feed your kid, you didn’t have anything. I think about how much we spend just on things like football, how we could take that money and spend it to better this world, to educate people. We have to pull together. The whole world is everybody’s responsibility. A little part of my soul will always be sad because of the disparity in the world, and Nepal definitely touched my soul.”
She’s already working on ideas of how to bring solar-charged tablets to the country to use as educational tools and teaching English in remote villages, because Nepalese who learn English are far more employable in a variety of jobs.
Another project she wants to initiate is giving quality shoes to the needy because the shoe quality there is poor, and many have no shoes at all. She especially wants to focus on getting shoes to children. This summer she’ll be collecting kids’ shoes and doing more runs to raise funds.
Amber is also seeking pen pals of any age for all the Kathmandu students she worked with, from nursery school to tenth grade.
“Something I learned from traveling is how much you can learn from other cultures and how different things can be. And it’s all okay. It’s okay to be different and do things differently. It’s so easy to judge people you don’t understand, so easy to be judgmental when you don’t understand the culture.”
Amber is on a mission not only to bridge that gap but to give back to the people of Nepal who so touched her heart.
Amber Thompson will be collecting donations of children’s shoes and money to help in the ongoing process of rebuilding Nepal and improving the living conditions for its peoples. She invites inquiries and encourages anyone interested to get involved, donate, or volunteer, and is more than happy to have discussions or give full details and information over coffee. Call her at (970) 306-5055 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.