‘I left a piece of me’: Huntsville couple ready for new humanitarian memories in Nepal

HUNTSVILLE, Jan 12: Brandy Van Gelder has waited four years to return to Nepal.

“I knew I would go back,” she said. “I knew I wanted to return to help.”

She and her friend, Kelly Hammond, had travelled with Dream Mountains Foundation to Nepal for a charitable trek to Mount Everest Base Camp in April 2015. Van Gelder had planned to mark her one-year cancer-free milestone as she reached the base camp.

But shortly after the duo arrived, tragedy struck in the form of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Nepal, claiming more than 9,000 lives. It was one of the deadliest earthquakes in Nepal’s history.

Several dozen aftershocks, many of them nearly as severe as the initial earthquake, followed, and monsoon floods and landslides had continued to devastate the country.

Van Gelder and Hammond, both members of the Rotary Club of Huntsville, had taken immediate action while in the country, through a collaboration between their fellow Huntsville Rotarians as well as Nepalese and Russian Rotarians they had met in Kathmandu, to fund and deliver emergency shelters and supplies to those affected.

But the trauma they sustained as firsthand witnesses to the disaster, as well as their own near-death experiences, remained with them as they were forced to evacuate with other foreign nationals.

“I left a piece of me there,” said Van Gelder.

Hammond returned to Nepal to trek to base camp in 2018.

And now Van Gelder — with her husband, Dave, by her side — will return in April.

The couple will not only trek to Mount Everest Base Camp, but will also use a Rotary grant and other funds to rehabilitate several destroyed Nepalese schools, and install water filters, in collaboration with Canadian and Nepalese Rotarians.

The new excursion will mark five years cancer-free for Brandy.

And it could offer some closure for Dave, too, who said he felt helpless so far from Brandy when the earthquake struck.

“I felt so useless being at home,” said Dave. “I’ll feel a lot better knowing that, if something happens, at least I’m there with her. Even if I can’t do a thing, at least I’m there to try.”

Nepal will be the couple’s second Rotary humanitarian excursion. Both participated in a Rotarians Enhancing Learning of African Youth school refurbishment and education project in Zambia, organized through the Rotary Club of Bracebridge-Muskoka Lakes, in 2018.

Dave said the impact their work in Zambia had on the children and teachers there — and the overwhelming gratitude of the young students — greatly affected him.

“Some people, including us, do a lot of local humanitarian work. But it does feel really good to help with international projects, too,” he said. “There is a lot of good in the world.”

The five-day work project in Nepal will provide washrooms, computer labs, libraries, desks and more to rural and remote schools that had been shuttered since 2015.

Huntsville residents Dave and Brandy Van Gelder say they are ready to make some new humanitarian memories after Brandy’s traumatic experience with fellow traveller Kelly Hammond during the Nepal earthquake in 2015.