Twenty years ago, Konnie and Mukhiya Gurung had a whirlwind courtship in Nepal.
Konnie had spent the past two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, working with several of the country's women's agricultural and forestry groups. She met Mukhiya (Moo-kee-ya) when she and a friend walked into the Tibetan restaurant/bar he owned in Kathmandu. Konnie was scheduled to leave Nepal in four months.
The couple married three days before she departed.
"It was like, Let's just take a chance and see what happens," Konnie recalled. Added Mukhiya: "Everyone thought I was crazy."
Fast forward to 2021, when the Mendota Heights couple will mark their 20th anniversary by giving back to the country where they met.
Supported by a monthlong sabbatical offered by Konnie's employer and a GoFundMe campaign, this September the Gurungs and their two teenage children plan to return to the tiny, remote village where Mukhiya grew up to help the community bring water to each of its 30 homes.
"We can't imagine a better way to send our graduating senior off into the world than by exploring this faraway piece of her origin story, and working side by side to honor it," Konnie said.
A sabbatical to "change gears"
The trip was inspired by a benefit offered by Konnie's employer, Quality Bicycle Products of Bloomington. The company's Change Gears Leave encourages longtime employees to take a break from their day jobs and volunteer for four weeks with a bicycle-related, environmental or community-service project.
Employees who have been with the company 10 years receive 80% of their salary; those with 20 years receive 100%. The company will also match any employee donations raised, up to $1,000.
Such programs are rare among employers, said QBP benefits specialist Beth Chillstrom. In the decade since QBP launched Change Gears, more than 30 employees have spent their sabbatical doing everything from building a new trail system to assisting at a food shelf. One staff member returned to his home country of Ethiopia to help an elder-care center.
"It's a chance for people to really re-energize themselves," Chillstrom said. "And there's a wellness aspect of giving back, which has always been a big focus for us as a company."
Opening the third eye
The Gurungs have only been back to Nepal a few times in the past two decades. The whole family went in 2006, so the kids, Shakti and Nayana, now 15 and 18, could meet their grandfather. After Mukhiya's father died in 2008, he traveled again to Nepal. During his trip, Mukhiya returned to Ghyaru, the village where he'd spent his earliest years, for the first time in some 25 years.
"The thing that shocked me was the lifestyle was exactly the same as when I left," Mukhiya said.
The remote farming community of about 100 people sits on a steep slope, at 12,000 feet elevation. Until a few years ago when a road was built, the only way to get to Ghyaru was to take a bus to the closest town and walk the final 10-plus miles. Since the village's nearest water source is an hour away, residents spend several hours each day hauling heavy jugs on their backs across the mountainous terrain. Many in the community are aging, making this process more difficult.
When Mukhiya asked the Ghyaru villagers how he and his family might help, they said procuring water was their primary concern. So the Gurungs developed a plan to raise $13,000 and have their family of four work alongside the villagers to dig trenches for an underground pipe network that will bring water from a nearby river to spigots outside each home.
If they are able to raise an additional $5,000, the Gurungs hope to add a secondary project of building public toilets for the village.
Konnie and Mukhiya hope that traveling to Nepal will allow their children to gain a deeper understanding of where their father grew up. And in working side-by-side, the family can honor Mukhiya's heritage.
"These are their roots, which they don't really think about, because they just consider themselves Americans," Konnie said. "They know their dad is from Nepal, but it'll finally have some real meaning."
Konnie and Mukhiya also feel that having their children experience a lifestyle so far removed from the technology and modern conveniences to which they're accustomed will help them appreciate life's fundamentals.
"We thought it would be nice to show them how simple a life people live up there, and still are very happy," Mukhiya said. "I think it's going to open their third eye."
Find information about the Gurung's Ghyaru Community Project fundraiser at gf.me/u/zn748u
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569