Local home, global reach: Asheville nonprofits export goodwill

POWER OF THE EARTH: Asheville-based nonprofit The Woven Eath Foundation is helping disaster-ravaged Nepal rebuild after a devastating earthquake two years ago with earth-bag construction, above.
POWER OF THE EARTH: Asheville-based nonprofit The Woven Eath Foundation is helping disaster-ravaged Nepal rebuild after a devastating earthquake two years ago with earth-bag construction, above. Photo courtesy of The Woven Earth Foundation

By Bob Kalk

Buncombe County is home to numerous nonprofits with a focus on international or foreign affairs, perhaps reflecting Ashevilleans’ willingness to look beyond their doorstep toward the broader world. But while some of these groups attract considerable attention, others tend to fly under the radar. Here’s a look at three small, Asheville-based service organizations that are working to feed, shelter and motivate individuals and communities both here and abroad — each in its own unique way.

The Woven Earth Foundation

In the Max Street Community Garden off South Charlotte Street, residents of the Grail House for Men worked side by side with members of The Woven Earth Foundation to restore an existing garden while raising funds for the halfway house. At the same time, the men were reconnecting with nature as part of a holistic restorative process for those recovering from addiction.

But recovery can take many forms, and on the other side of the globe, the Asheville-based nonprofit is helping disaster-ravaged Nepal rebuild after a devastating earthquake two years ago. Brandon “Bodhi” Denton was in Bandipur when the temblor hit. “The ground was oscillating, almost as the surface of the ocean does with its rippling waves,” he recalls. “I was humbled and mesmerized by the sheer power of the Earth.”

The 7.8-magnitude quake lasted just three minutes, but it affected more than 6 million people. The tremors were felt as far away as Lahore, Pakistan; Lhasa, Tibet; and Dhaka, Bangladesh. A full two weeks later, one aftershock was measured at 7.3. Nepal is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, with annual floods and landslides, periodic drought and epidemics, and a high level of seismic activity.

Back in Asheville, Denton and fellow permaculture enthusiast Michael Smith teamed up with local earthen building instructors Justin Hall and Luke Trotman to form Woven Earth that fall. A workshop in Nepal’s hard-hit Gorkha District taught participants how to create domed structures out of superadobe, which uses coiled bags of dirt to make earthquake-resistant buildings.

Unlike the traditional building techniques, which could not withstand the tremors, the foundation’s Nepal Resilience Project uses permaculture principles to create “model structures and systems which are low-cost, durable and ecologically regenerative,” says Denton. Permaculture, he explains, “is a way of creating systems that are modeled after nature and operate as natural systems do — in a continuously regenerating fashion, a cyclical fashion, to create an environment in which all of life can thrive.”

This fall, Woven Earth will once again host a service-learning workshop in Nepal on superadobe construction. Participants will rebuild as many houses as they can, and interested locals will learn modified earth-bag techniques.

“We have a lot of projects in the works that we need funding for, including community-driven agroforestry and preserving traditional Himalayan skills,” says Denton. “By empowering local people to teach their skills to interested foreigners and Nepalese,” he continues, these locals are able to generate income. “We also give scholarships to local Nepali people to participate in our programs.”

And despite the significant challenges, Denton remains optimistic. “Nepal will recover,” he says, “and not only recover but gain even more long-term resilience and sustainability.”

To learn more about the permaculture design workshop in Bali, Indonesia, in July, other projects in various Himalayan mountain communities or to make a donation, visit wovenearth.org or email wovenearthdesign@gmail.com.

Seed Programs International

In a small farmhouse nestled in the hills near Swannanoa, a dedicated team is getting seeds sent to far-flung corners of the world where there’s a big need. “We do hear, from our partners in the field, just how the vegetables they grow change lives,” notes Naima Dido, program director for Seed Programs International. As a Muslim woman from Kenya, the Asheville transplant knows how to work effectively with other East African women. “We develop solutions that work for the community,” she explains. “We also make sure we don’t disturb the culture.”

Seed industry veteran John A. Batcha had witnessed firsthand both the power of seed donations and the many hurdles involved. Drawing on that experience, he founded Seed Programs International in 1998 to connect seed companies with areas of need around the world. Now retired, he serves on the organization’s board of directors.

“I think it’s about ‘agro-biodiversity,’” says CEO Peter Marks, a champion of sustainable practices and a veteran of Asheville-area agriculture. “That’s a fancy word that relates to the variety of what you’re producing. So much of the world is now displaced from homes established three or four generations ago. They’re separated from traditions that, at one time, gave them a strong base and a diverse diet. I think they’re eager to reconstruct that.”

Rather than relying on template solutions, notes Marks, “Our programs are adaptable and scalable because we rely on partners: They tell us what they need. Replicability is a great concept, but with the nature of what we do, the only thing truly replicable is the practice of listening and asking questions. We learn how a resource that we can share can best be deployed in your setting, in your culture, in your context, at this time. And the kind of resources we provide are exactly what these countries need to raise their economies out of poverty in a self-sustaining way. That creates a base for other kinds of economic development later.”

This is especially important, says Dido, “for women that have these small backyard gardens.” One Kenyan woman told her, “I can send my kids to school now. I can buy medicine when I need it.” And at the broader community level, continues Dido, “Some of the women have a savings group where some of that money might go into a cleaning service or other business. Some is used for health insurance or as a backup safety net for catastrophic events. It goes far beyond where we see it.”

To learn more about Seed Programs International, visit seedprograms.org.

The School of Esoteric Studies

Meanwhile, another small, local organization is using spiritual tools to foster positive change in the world.

Working out of a historic home on South French Broad Avenue, the School for Esoteric Studies’ two staffers coordinate the efforts of some 20 “senior students” scattered around the world. These “commentators” are the heart of the project, voluntarily contributing their time and effort to promote deeper understanding and help others learn to live the life of the soul in the everyday world.

The school champions a range of ideas put forth by Alice Ann Bailey, an English mystic who spent most of her life in the U.S. Among many other things, her writings discuss the “seven rays,” an ancient Hindu concept concerning the fundamental energies that are behind, and through, all manifestation. They are seen as creative forces of the universe and expressions of divinity, the unifying and coordinating quality of deity, that fosters the evolution of all things.

Bailey founded the Arcane School in New York City in 1923. After her death in 1949, a disagreement among her followers about the kinds of courses that should be offered led to the establishment of the School for Esoteric Studies in 1956. The New York-based organization moved to Arden in 1998 and relocated to Asheville in 2012.

In an article on the school’s website titled “What is Evil?” Executive Director Gail G. Jolley writes, “The Forces of Darkness try to keep the Forces of Light from entering our world, because they ‘feed’ on our material natures. Thus they need to keep humanity trapped in its material world by appealing to our baser instincts, and they seek to keep humanity’s spirit from rising free by keeping our minds and hearts focused on the ‘attractions’ of the material world.”

To counteract this, the school offers correspondence courses on a donation basis. Each individual’s work is reviewed by a commentator, who remains anonymous.

“As we study the Ageless Wisdom teachings,” writes Jolley, we get the impression that much of what we might categorize as evil is basically a question of people or entities behaving badly due to materialistic, separative and retrogressive attitudes based on fear, selfishness and ignorance — which is certainly bad enough, but is it evil?”

The antidote, she believes, is spiritual evolution.

“Transformation, healing and redeeming action,” says Jolley, “can only come from a higher spiritual focus, a higher will, so that we can see the situation whole and not focus on duality and conflict.” To that end, she continues, “We offer ideas for your consideration: If you find them to be meaningful, fine. I’m a very practical person, and as far as I’m concerned, what’s most important to get out of this course of teaching is what you can apply directly to your own life — to change things, to give benefit to the world around you.”

To learn more about the School for Esoteric Studies, visit esotericstudies.net.

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