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Social worker will spend year counseling orphans in distant Nepal

CLEARWATER — Becky Day is spending her nights and weekends packing up her life. She's selling her car, leaving her job and storing her belongings in the basement of her parents' Vermont home.

The 32-year-old social worker is moving to rural Nepal at the end of August.

"I've wondered sometimes if I'm making the right decision," she said. "But really, this just feels like what I'm supposed to be doing."

In May, Day received a one-year fellowship to work as a guidance counselor and therapist at the Kopila Valley Children's Home and School in the remote Surkhet district of Nepal, a mountainous country nestled between China and India. The nonprofit mentors more than 300 children, many of whom lost their parents during the decadelong Nepalese civil war that ended in 2006.

Day says the fellowship combines her "two greatest passions" — children and volunteer work — but without the financial stresses of life in the United States.

"I'll have all of the joy and none of the worry over there," she said.

Day, an Eckerd College graduate, has lived in Tampa Bay since 1999. She recently served as program coordinator at the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture, which helped lead her to Kopila Valley.

"We wanted somebody who could come and work with our kids, somebody they could talk to and trust," said Kopila Valley founder Maggie Doyne. "A lot of them come from traumatic backgrounds."

The school has six fellowship positions, including a tutor and English teacher, but Day will be Kopila Valley's first trained therapist. Doyne, 26, created the mental health fellowship after a 13-year-old girl at the school committed suicide last year.

"It was something I struggled with for a long time. I just felt like we missed something," she said.

Kopila Valley reviewed several hundred applications, but decided Day was the "perfect person" for the job, Doyne said.

"We feel like she's filling a major, major need. We're really excited," she said.

Since 2011, Day has been the mental health liaison for the Pinellas County Public Defender's Office. There, she regularly works with 10 to 15 youths at a time.

Many of them have grown up surrounded by poverty and violence, she said.

"The kids I work with often don't have anyone they can count on. They have the world stacked against them," Day said.

The key, she said, is developing trust. She uses games and casual conversation to build a rapport with her patients. She also tries to focus on just one problem at a time, usually anger or frustration.

"For me, it's about building relationships and leaving people in a better place than when I found them," she said.

Still, Day anticipates plenty of challenges in Nepal. Many of the children at Kopila Valley come from backgrounds of poverty and violence. Some were victims of abuse and human trafficking.

"It's going to be really important to help them build self-esteem. I'm also going to be working with the staff to spot warning signs of depression," said Day, who previously worked at a suicide prevention center.

While Day does not speak Nepalese, many of the children are fluent in English, Doyne said. Day also has experience abroad: She has traveled to 13 different countries on service and research trips.

And Day notes that "a lot of communication is universal."

While the fellowship covers housing and basic living costs, Day still has to pay for her flight, visa and all other expenses. She created a website, www. youcaring.com/mission-trip-fundraiser/help-send-becky-tonepal/66243, to help raise money.

As of Friday, she'd raised $2,350 toward her $4,000 goal.

"It's been pretty incredible that people have been so generous and willing to help me out," she said.

Together, Day and Doyne hope to extend the fellowship beyond one year.

"This has been my dream for a long time," Day said.

Matt McKinney can be reached at mmckinney@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4156. Follow @Mmckinne17 on Twitter.

Social worker will spend year counseling orphans in distant Nepal 07/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 19, 2013 5:59pm]
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