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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Fair trade morphs into caring ties

By Mary Stamp

Barbara Novak holds a singing bowl from Nepal.

Barbara Novak’s dining room table is covered with Cambodian sculptures. One bed is covered with eco-friendly Nepalese wrapping paper made from Lokta bush bark.  Tibetan singing bowls, sound implements and prayer flags are in her garage.

Barbara and her business partner, Kirk Richmond, moved the items from the Far East Handicrafts outlet in Seattle, where he worked, to Barbara’s home in Spokane.

In August, he retired and moved to Nepal to carry on projects of the Stephen R. Novak Foundation, a nonprofit started in 1998.

Many crafters for Far East Handicrafts in Nepal are also retiring. Their children are educated and entering other careers.

Barbara will continue to offer Far East Handicrafts products at the Jubilee Sale Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4 and 5 at First Presbyterian Church, 318 S. Cedar. 

Kirk will work with organizations in Nepal to be sure foundation funds go where they need to go.

Barbara, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance, in 1972 from Washington State University and in 1974 from Southern Illinois University, played a year with the symphony in Evanston, Ind., before auditioning for the Spokane Symphony.  She played bassoon and contra bassoon there until 1999, taught in the music departments of Gonzaga University, Whitworth University and Washington State University, and gave private lessons.

Her professional music career coincided with her ministry.

In 1978, Barbara, who grew up attending St. David’s Episcopal Church in Spokane, was the first woman ordained to the diaconate at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.  She studied three years under the former Dean Richard Coombs and took classes at Gonzaga University. She has done prison, hospice and drug rehabilitation ministries. 

“As a deacon, I have one foot in the church world and one foot in the secular world, and I am to interpret to the church the needs, concerns and hopes of the world.”

In 1981, she married Terry Novak, Spokane city manager from 1979 to 1991.  Later he was vice president at Eastern Washington University and professor in the business and public administration master’s program at the Riverpoint campus.  Terry’s son, Steve, lived with them for five years before Barbara adopted him in 1985 when he turned 18.

Steve studied business and philosophy at Whitman College, beginning in 1986.  After graduating, he took a nine-month spiritual journey, visiting Buddhist monasteries in Thailand and Nepal.

He came back with handcrafted items, clothing, handbags and singing bowls to start Far East Handicrafts in 1988—setting aside plans to become an environmental lawyer for later.

“Steve ran the business on fair trade principles, making sure crafts people were paid fair wages in their cultural context and could send their children to school,” said Barbara, who helped the sister of a crafter through school.

The business grew, and Steve opened Far East Handicrafts in Seattle. In 1995, when he was 28, he died in an accident in an abandoned silver mine by Lake Pend Oreille.

Five months after the accident, her father died.  From 1990 to 1995, Barbara had stepped back from ministry to help her mother care for her father, who had emphysema.

In 1996, Barbara went to Nepal for the first time, meeting crafters and people doing medical projects and a reforestation program, planting trees to replace those cut by hill tribe people for firewood.

“I had never seen poverty like that,” said Barbara. 

She and Terry kept the business based in Seattle and continued projects to aid craftspeople. Barbara wanted to sponsor a school. Steve’s agent in Kathmandu, Tula Shakya, president of the Nepal Handicraft Association, became their business partner there.

In their 1998 trip to Nepal, Barbara and Kirk decided to sponsor the Shree Mahankal Primary School in Tallu Nallu, the hill-tribe village of one of Tula’s employees.

Visiting the “dirt poor,” subsistence farming village southeast of Kathmandu, she found school children in tatters, and teachers in the one-room school without books, pencils or paper.  There was no road, so she and Kirk walked two miles to the village. 

Walking back to the road overcome with emotion, they decided to take money they had planned to spend at a popular resort town and instead bought school supplies, chalk, maps, books and volleyballs.  When they returned to the village, the people were amazed they had come back so soon. 

Back in the U.S., they established the Stephen R. Novak Foundation in honor of Steve. 

“Our relationship continued with the school, which we expanded to include three classrooms, toilets, electricity and running water—benefits that extended to the village,” she said.

Teachers went to school to learn how to teach.  Parents formed a school board and started going to school, too.  They took pride in their children being educated.  Barbara continues to help the school, which now has 150 students.

“As the school has progressed, the village’s standard of living has risen,” she said.

When she first went to the village there were about 50 families, but many were lost in the 2015 earthquake,” she said.

In 2005, we had decided the school was in a dangerous spot on a hill above a river, so we relocated it.  The first school became a clinic.  The school’s five buildings were built using UN earthquake codes with steel beams and rebar.  It survived the 2015 earthquake with minor cracks that have been fixed. It was a shelter after the quake.  Homes on hillsides collapsed and killed many people.

Barbara raised money to help with earthquake recovery.  A strike in Nepal prevented her from going last October, so she plans her 14th trip in January.  Caregiving for her father, then for Terry, who died in 2009, and her mother, who died in April at the age of 92, had limited her travel.

Work with the village is through the Stephen R. Novak Foundation, which also supports the Tilganga Eye Centre in Kathmandu. The clinic takes state-of-the-art laser equipment to remote villages to give people free eye care and cataract surgery. 

“One day people are blind.  The next day they can see,” said Barbara, who has gone with three eye camps. “Blind people are a burden on their families.  Many are depressed. Some commit suicide.”

At the clinic in Kathmandu, people line up in the morning for eye care that is free or paid on a sliding scale. 

Many have cataracts because of the elevation, no sunglasses and a lack of vitamin A with their diet of rice and lentils, she said.

The foundation also works with Joy Foundation Nepal and Mountain People, organizations of business and professional people, in Kathmandu, as well as individuals and organizations globally.  They work to improve the quality of life in many hill tribe villages, providing education, medical and eye care, sanitation and water systems, and, since the earthquakes, helping with food, water, clothing and reconstruction.

Kirk will work with Buddhist monks he met in 2014 to open an orphanage in Kathmandu. 

“Since the earthquake, the number of orphans has exploded,” Barbara said.  “Village children who lost parents flooded into Kathmandu, needing education, health care and hygiene.”

Now Barbara, 67, and Kirk, 65, will no longer bring new items to sell for the Far East Handicrafts.  Sales of the remaining crafts will continue to help support the foundation and supplement Barbara’s fixed income. 

The Stephen R. Novak Foundation receives support as an outreach ministry of St. John’s Cathedral, where she serves on the clergy staff and assists with Sunday services.  It also has received grants from the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and the Episcopal Church USA in support of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

For information, call 953-9053 or email bnovak2865@comcast.net.




Copyright © November 2016 - The Fig Tree