Receiving a two-liter bottle of Coke as a gift doesn’t seem very significant, but this past September it brought Barbara Cunningham to tears.

Cunningham, a Forest Parker who has owned and operated a cashmere importing business for six years, Silk Road Importers, was traveling with her fiancé Tom for the second time to Nepal, a small, poor Asian country, to pick up supplies for her business. She gets her cashmere directly from Nepal because they have “the best stuff in the world,” and money can go directly to the Nepalese people, whom she feels need it the most.

She was also visiting the eight Nepalese school children that the all-male OPRF service group, Dudes Makin’ a Difference (DMD), are sponsoring.

Two of the children, Diku Sherpa and Lapka Sherpa, are young girls with epilepsy. With the funds raised by DMD, which Cunningham helped organize, the girls were able to start boarding school and get the medicine they needed to stop their epileptic seizures.

The girls’ father, Mr. Lama, was so thankful for DMD’s support that he walked for three days from his village and took buses for another day to reach Cunningham in Kathmandu, so he could present her with a two-liter bottle of Coke and “prayer scarves” as a token of his appreciation.

“We were all just standing there with tears in her eyes when he bent down to put these prayer scarves around our necks as a sign of peace and thanks,” Cunningham said. “He just presented this bottle of Coke like it was a Faberge egg, and we’re all crying, and he’s crying

“These are normal little girls now who are going to be able to have a good life. It’s pretty amazing what a little bit of money can do.”

Cunningham is friends with the mothers of DMD’s original members, Janet Schiffman, Gale Clarke and Alexis Rasley. She met them through Infant Welfare Society, and told the moms about a Nepalese schoolboy, Sonam Lama, whom she was supporting. The moms were so intrigued they invited Cunningham to talk to their sons.

“I took a bunch of pictures with, we ended up talking, and three hours later we had the name ‘Dudes Makin’ a Difference,’ and these kids had agreed to try and raise money to educate more kids,” Cunningham said.

It costs $400 to put a Nepalese child through one year of boarding school, about twice as much with room and board, and DMD has come up with enough funds for eight children. They’d like to eventually raise enough money to put them through all 12 years of school.

“They’re children who otherwise wouldn’t have any opportunity for education,” Mrs. Schiffman said. “A lot of these children grow up and have to work immediately-or their parents can’t afford to educate them or even raise them, so they send them to monasteries where they have to almost be like slaves. They sleep all day, they sleep on mats, they have one bowl of rice a day, and that’s kind of their existence.”

Cunningham was surprised by how different boarding schools in Nepal are from ones in the United States. Ten children slept in one room in bunk beds, shoulder-to-shoulder. They spend 10 hours a day studying on small mats with just a 45-minute break.

The rapid progress of the children’s learning also was a surprise. Sonam couldn’t speak a lick of English during her visit last year, but now he can carry on a conversation.

“A year ago he was being sent to the monastery because his parents couldn’t afford to keep him, and now he has a future,” Cunningham said.

DMD recently became an official club at the high school, and also held its Second Annual Dudes Makin’ a Difference International Holiday Gift Sale, Dec. 7 at the high school cafeteria to help fund private education for Nepalese children. The sale, which featured homemade candies, ceramics, jewelry and Nepalese clothing items provided by Cunningham, raised about $1,200, enough to put three children through school for a year.

About a dozen new members signed up to be Dudes at the event.

The group has another fundraiser running through Dec. 16 with The Perfect Dinner restaurant, located at 809 South Blvd in Oak Park. Ten percent of the bill of those who mention DMD will go towards the Dudes’ efforts in Nepal.

Those wishing to help send Nepalese children to school can also send a check payable to Dudes Makin’ a Difference, 161 N. Elmwood Ave., Oak Park, Ill., or, if you’d like more info, contact one of the Dudes’ co-presidents, Scott Rasley (848-5216) or Ryan Clarke (383-9010).

The children Cunningham and her fiancé came to call the “Kathmandudes makin’ a difference” might live on the other side of the world, but the impact the Oak Park Dudes have had on their lives is immeasurable.

“There’s not that much of an age difference,” Cunningham said when comparing the Dudes to the Nepalese children. “Some of these kids are 13 years old, but they look like they’re six or seven because they’ve had such poor nutrition.

“Chances are these kids will never meet each other, but what an impact they’re having on the lives of total strangers. It’s amazing.”

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