Laguna Beach resident Christine Casey didn't know a 2004 hiking trip to Nepal would change her life forever.
Casey, now 70, was a successful banking executive without much experience in international charity, but the children tugged at her heartstrings. Some had no clothes. Others had hair loaded with lice.
"In Kathmandu [Nepal's capital], people were stepping over naked children," she said. "I'm Roman Catholic, and the Holy Spirit grabbed me by the back of the head."
Casey recruited friends from church to help establish the nonprofit Chhahari, which means shelter, in August 2007.
Chhahari raises money to provide food, shelter, education and healthcare for orphaned and underprivileged children in the southeast Asian nation.
The orphanage houses 24 children, who range in age from 6 to 16, and live with a married caregiver couple and their two sons.
One of the first steps in the organization's development was establishing Chhahari as a legal nonprofit, a key component that encourages potential donors to give money, Casey said.
Being able to write off a donation on a tax return is critical in attracting donors, she said.
To help with the process, Casey contacted Tom Davis, a business law attorney in Laguna Beach.
"It was a no-brainer," Davis said. "Chris' energy and enthusiasm for the project is beautiful. I heard the story about the kids in the street and wanted to do something for them."
Casey visits Nepal each year from January to June, staying with a host family. She first taught English to children, and then helped organize programs in dance, drama and art.
"I push kids to see different things, such as historical sites, to know more about their government," Casey said.
She hopes more young people will stay in Nepal and give back to their native country rather than take jobs in surrounding countries such as Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia.
"In Saudi Arabia, if someone is paving the streets, the person is probably from Nepal," she said. "My focus is educating children to stay in Nepal and change the system, or it will never change."
Chhahari has no paid staff and all money raised helps Nepalese children, Davis said.
Davis and his law firm volunteer by handling Chhahari's bookkeeping.
"I'm so happy to do it," Davis said. "I get more joy than the organization gets out of me."
The next goal is to build a permanent home outside the Kathmandu Valley to get away from air pollution and water shortages near their current location, Casey said.
"The rented building we are in now consumes a huge amount of our budget, which is about $30,000 per year," Casey said.
For more information, or to donate to Chhahari, visit http://www.chhahari.orghttp://www.chhahari.org/index.html.