REI Building Community Relief Center After Nepal Earthquake

Editor’s note: In 2021 REI Adventures phased out its international trips to focus on and grow its adventures programs and experiences throughout the U.S.

In the year following the April 2015 earthquake, REI and its members have helped Nepal save lives and livelihoods. Now in the works: the first disaster relief center in Everest’s gateway community.

When a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, Mingma Dorji Sherpa was enjoying lunch with his granddaughter in Kathmandu. A meal with the cheery one-year-old was a relaxing break after a busy morning of preparations for REI Adventures’ trekkers currently in the country and others who would arrive soon. Mingma has supported Nepal trips for REI Adventures—the REI co-op’s travel agency—for nearly 30 years, a profession he learned from his father.

As the first tremors began, Mingma and his granddaughter rushed outside, where they safely rode out the earthquake.

While keeping his young granddaughter reassured, Mingma began to make calls about the safety of his family, staff and 15 REI members. While his office staff was based in Kathmandu, he had three large teams traveling with the co-op’s guests. Two groups were in the Everest region, and one in Chitwan, a southern national park far from the quake’s epicenter. The news was good: His family, trekking team and guests were all out of harm’s way.

Meanwhile, REI Adventures operations manager Justin Wood in Seattle had awakened to the sound of a 1:30 am text message from Mingma. Phone calls from Nepal could not reach the U.S. at that point. Communicating closely with Mingma, Justin called the emergency contact for every single REI guest and let them know that their loved ones were accounted for and uninjured.

Immediate Help

The co-op maintains a relationship with Mercy Corps, an international development organization working around the world to empower people to survive crises, build better lives and transform their communities in positive ways. REI promptly made a $50,000 gift to Mercy Corps to support the organization’s emergency relief efforts in Nepal, where 100 local staff were ready to help.

Nepal Relief Center

Following the earthquake, residents cleared rubble in Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu. Photo credit: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.

Whether they’ve traveled to the “roof of the world” or dreamed of doing so, many REI members feel a personal connection to Nepal. “We received numerous calls and emails from past REI Adventures guests asking what they could do,” Justin says.

The co-op took another quick action—it emailed 5.5 million active members about the opportunity to assist Nepal through Mercy Corps. The response was swift, with 10,800 members contributing more than $852,000 in just a few days.

Mercy Corps’ staff traveled throughout Nepal to distribute relief supplies, reaching remote villages with much-needed items like clothing, blankets, water purification liquid, cooking utensils and more. (Read more about Mercy Corps efforts in Nepal.) Meanwhile, World Wildlife Fund distributed REI-brand tents and community water filters, donated by REI vendor partner LifeStraw and capable of providing safe drinking water to 25,000 people.

“We wish to extend our heartfelt appreciation to REI’s members and the co-op for standing with the people of Nepal,” says Sanjay Karki, Mercy Corps Nepal country director. “Thanks to your contributions, approximately 11,275 families (an estimated 56,375 people) have begun rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.”

Commitments Kept

In the wake of the earthquake, REI Adventures had to cancel the remainder of its spring 2015 trips to Nepal. (Spring and fall are the country’s trekking seasons.)

“Many members of Mingma’s team needed to repair and rebuild their homes, and like all of us, depend on their salaries. We decided to cover their wages and tips for all of the canceled trips,” says Cynthia Dunbar, REI Adventures general manager. “This was simply the right thing to do for a company that we’ve partnered with for 30 years.”

Nepal Relief Center

Local residents of Namche Bazaar have been busy helping each other and to rebuild structures damaged or in need of repair. Photo credit: Dan Patitucci

That decision provided much-needed funds. “REI’s support kept us in business and helped all of our 45 employees—guides, cooks, porters, yak drivers and office staff—and their families,” Mingma says.

The Region’s First Relief Center

Every visitor bound for Everest or the surrounding Khumbu region spends a night in Namche Bazaar, a picturesque town known for its Sherpa culture and warm hospitality. The people of Namche Bazaar are not only welcoming—they are brave and tenacious.

Headquartered in town is the Sagarmatha Buffer Zone Authority and Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC). One of the Buffer Zone Authority’s goals has been to have a fully-stocked relief center, with supplies to help with both rescue and disaster situations. A grant from REI Adventures made the construction and equipping of the relief center a reality.

Nepal Relief Center

As Nepal marks the first anniversary of the earthquake, the roof and walls of the relief center have already risen, and a crew is working hard to prepare the building’s interior. Workers carried bags of concrete and other construction materials over 10 miles and 3,000 feet in elevation to reach Namche Bazaar. Helicopters were also used to fly in some prefabricated pieces.

Once complete, the center will be staffed by SPCC and stocked with fire-proof jackets, stretchers, shovels, binoculars, sleeping bags and other gear.

Elsewhere in the country, REI Adventures is financing the rebuilding and repair of 100 biogas systems, previously funded by the co-op and damaged during the earthquake. The biogas systems provide sanitation and clean cooking fuel for homes and communities, and reduce the need to harvest trees for firewood. They are being repaired by an REI partner organization, Nepal SEEDS.

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