Relief In Nepal

Cockeysville native Robin Contino has not just found her charitable work with Catholic Relief Services in the Asian nation

she's made a home there

August 18, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun reporter

Underwear was nobody's biggest concern in March when fires raced through a refugee camp in Nepal, leaving behind a smoldering expanse of ash and ruin. Food, water, shelter, pants and shirts ranked higher for the 10,000 inhabitants who'd lost everything.

But thanks to a relief effort that Cockeysville native Robin Contino helped coordinate, these refugees from neighboring Bhutan got all that plus undergarments, school uniforms and other valued items that could easily have been forgotten amid the chaos.

"They were able to get access to some basic needs that restored their dignity and got them back to their normal life," said Contino, the first-ever Nepal country manager for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

For Contino, 35, doing good for Nepal is a more than a job. In a sense, it's her life. After all, she now considers the impoverished Central Asian nation her home as much as Baltimore. It's where she met her husband, Samir Thapa, and where they are happily raising their 2-year-old daughter, Lulu.

In the unpredictable way life works, Nepal was barely a blip on her radar screen a decade ago. She knew about Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak. She also knew that Tibet was nearby. That was it. It had not occurred to her to learn more, let alone visit this land of some 28 million people.

Today she speaks fluent Nepali. As critical from her employer's standpoint, she can navigate the political and social byways. She's equally at home in remote villages and the traffic-choked capital Kathmandu. She can talk all about the Maoist insurgency that helped end the constitutional monarchy and about today's tenuous eight-party democratic republic.

"The situation in Nepal is really complicated. We've got one of the best people in the world doing this now, from our point of view, with her skill set," said Kevin Hartigan, CRS' regional director for South Asia, by phone from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Contino is not just in charge of the CRS country program: She is the country program, with a staff of exactly one. In practice, that means she works hand in glove with CRS partners, especially Caritas, the Rome-based relief arm of the Roman Catholic Church, whose local staff is Nepalese.

Hartigan ticked off a list of adjectives that he says have served Contino well in her solitary role during an uncertain time for Nepal: self-directed, extremely calm, unshakable.

Growing up in Baltimore, Contino realized early that she wanted to see the world. She also felt a desire to help the less fortunate. Her parents, Fran and Barbara Contino, set an example with their involvement in the Special Olympics. She was a "hugger" who greeted athletes at the finish line.

But well-intentioned globe-trotting had to wait a while. After graduating from St. Paul's School for Girls in 1991, she studied sociology at the University of Maryland. Then, in 1995, it was on to Florida State University for a graduate degree in social work. She got her master's in 1997.

On New Year's Eve in 1997, she made a resolution to find a way to move overseas. That led her to Jesuit Volunteers International, where she signed on for a two-year stint ... somewhere. She wanted Africa but expected Latin America since she spoke some Spanish. Instead, in 1998, she wound up going to Nepal, a place that to her was still little more than a speck on the map between China and India.

Eager to avoid expectations and preconceived notions, she did not so much as buy a Lonely Planet guide. All she read was a brief entry she found in a tattered old encyclopedia.

Her project centered on developing and teaching a new social work curriculum at St. Xavier's College in Kathmandu. When the two years ended, she stayed a third year to lead a middle-school social outreach program. And when that year ended, she extended again. By this point, she had gotten serious with Samir Thapa, who owned a rafting business.

Over the next three or so years, Contino devoted herself to a mental health counseling practice she launched in 2001 for a mostly Western clientele, not realizing just how much demand there would be.

The violent Maoist insurgency, which killed more than 12,000, peaked in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade. As a result, a number of Peace Corps volunteers and other American or European expatriates, while rarely targets themselves, had traumatic experiences. Maybe they saw dead bodies or knew a local official who was slain.

She carved out time for pro bono counseling sessions with Nepalese. She also ran a peer education program for sex workers under a contract with an American nongovernmental organization, mentored a group of recovered intravenous drug users who worked in rehab centers and coached girls' soccer at the international Lincoln School.

"I was busy," she said the other day over coffee at her Middle River home, near the end of a regular stateside visit with her family.

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