Olga’s Promise is now our shared promise

Olga’s Promise is now our shared promise

How to help us keep Olga’s promise

Olga’s Promise is a common phrase within the NYF Community—but with so many new friends among us, we’ve begun receiving questions about this important part of NYF’s fascinating history! Read on to learn all about Olga, her remarkable promise to Nepal’s children, and the work she defined as the most important of her life.

A Brief Biography: Olga Murray

Olga Murray had already led an extraordinary life before founding the Nepal Youth Foundation in 1990, in her 60s.

Born in the Transylvania region of Romania in 1925 to a Jewish Hungarian family, Olga and her family immigrated to the United States when she was only six.

Olga grew up in the Bronx during the Great Depression and World War II. She later recalled her parents’ ingenuity and resourcefulness as they navigated the economic hardships of the time, and their anxiety and heartache during World War II, when all contact with their families abruptly ceased. Olga’s father’s entire immediate family and her mother’s mother, brother, and several sisters were murdered during the Holocaust.

Olga graduated high school at age 16, only a month following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The prospect of college had not occurred to her as an option. Instead, she enrolled in a secretarial skills course, learning touch-typing, shorthand, and other office skills.

Then, at age 17, she embraced her innate wanderlust, boarding a train for exotic Los Angeles—the furthest she could travel during wartime. Olga spent the next years traveling the United States alone, supporting herself in tiny apartments while working clerical jobs, and taking in all the diversity and wonder she could find.

Soon, friends took notice of Olga’s sharp intellect, and began suggesting that she enter college. Olga did so, financing her educational journey by waitressing at night and earning a political science degree, cum laude, from Columbia University in 1949. She then applied for a job at the State Department, hoping to travel—but following a thorough FBI investigation, she was denied the opportunity because she had been born behind the Iron Curtain.

Social Justice & Early Career

The developing Cold War and Red Scare rhetoric deepened Olga’s interest in politics and social justice, and soon she secured a job working with the famed muckraking columnist Drew Pearson. She developed a passion for cutting through red tape and solving problems for ordinary citizens. She especially enjoyed leveraging the power of the press to advocate for oppressed people—a subject she was becoming increasingly focused on as the Civil Rights Movement got underway in the early 1950s.

Pearson, like so many others, took quick note of Olga’s tremendous potential, and her passion for advocacy. When Olga decided to risk pursuing a law degree—a subject that, in the early 1950s, was essentially unheard of for women—he encouraged her wholeheartedly, tweaking her working schedule to allow her to balance a full course load with her employment.

Olga earned her law degree at George Washington University in 1954, then moved to San Francisco to pursue a relationship with Judd Murray, the man who would be her husband from 1955 to 1961. She passed the California Bar Exam in late 1954 and was sworn into the California Bar soon thereafter—one of only six women in the entire cohort of hundreds.

The California Supreme Court

Against the odds, she soon secured a job working as a research attorney for Chief Justice Phil Gibson of the California Supreme Court—a position she held until his retirement in 1964. She then joined the staff of Associate Justice Stanley Mosk and remained at the California Supreme Court until 1992: the entire 37-year duration of her career. These decades saw the California Supreme Court pioneering many areas of law, developing new doctrines that were adopted by the high courts of other states. In her years as a research attorney, Olga helped write important decisions in the areas of civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental policy—work she took great pride in for the remainder of her life.

During this time, Olga traveled as often as possible, exploring Europe, Central America and any other destination that piqued her interest. In 1984, when Olga was 59, her lifelong wanderlust drew her to India—and Nepal.

Olga’s Promise

Olga’s first visit to Nepal was intended as a brief side trip. She knew nothing of the country other than that it was possible to trek in the beautiful Himalayas. Olga loved to hike.

She had no idea that this side trip would transform her life.

Embarking on a comparatively accessible trek from Pokhara, Olga passed through small, beautiful villages filled with friendly faces. With her white hair and slight build, Olga was different from the younger, more athletic trekkers who typically passed through. Once Olga’s openhearted, warm nature became apparent, children along the trail were eager to make friends, regardless of the language barrier. Olga later described them as “the most joyful, funny, amiable little kids anywhere on earth.”

Through her guides, Olga learned that the dearest wish of these children was to attend school. Very few rural Nepali children had access to education in those days.

An excerpt from her memoir “Olga’s Promise”:

“One evening, while camping near a hut on top of a small mountain, I was invited inside for a visit. Three young children were sitting on the dirt floor doing their homework by candlelight, their notebooks resting on a crude wooden plank that served as a desk. Their father and I were able to communicate through a few halting words in Nepali. His children were the lucky ones, he told me. Even though they walked two hours up and down the mountain to reach school every day, they were getting an education.

“Lying in my sleeping bag that night in the darkness of the tent, I suddenly knew—out of the blue, in a lightning moment—what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Right then, I made a promise to myself that I would find a way to educate Nepali children.Olga’s Promise, p. 30.

Olga had retirement on her mind, and though she knew she wanted to work with children after retiring, she was not clear how. Now, however, she realized that she wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of Nepali children. Undaunted as ever by the unknown, Olga threw herself into exploring the possibilities.

Nepal Youth Foundation

Olga began fulfilling her promise by personally providing college scholarships to a handful of young men on the brink of aging out of a Kathmandu orphanage. She reached out to her network of friends and loved ones, pleading for other students in similar circumstances. The work grew organically until, in 1990—two years before her retirement from law in 1992—Olga officially founded the Nepal Youth Foundation.

For the rest of her life, Olga spent half of almost every year living and working in Nepal.

Since its founding, NYF has helped over 60,000 Nepali children access scholarships, healthcare, freedom, shelter, and other empowering services—all without concern for caste, gender, disability, religious background, or other circumstance.

NYF was founded on Olga’s promise of education, but as her work got underway, Olga recognized other needs standing between Nepal’s children and a prosperous, empowered adulthood. Her mission grew organically, eventually incorporating interventions in nutritional health, family-style shelter, grassroots advocacy, and more.

Led by Nepali Experts

Olga earned the trust of the communities she served by privileging Nepali voices when designing and enacting solutions to identified problems. NYF proudly continues this approach today.

At the same time, Olga was wisely planning for NYF’s future. She realized that keeping her promise to Nepal’s children depended on Nepali leadership and expertise. In 2012, she named Som Paneru as her successor as NYF’s President, safeguarding the organization’s longevity.

Nepal’s tumultuous journey through recent decades saw Olga and NYF navigate Maoist insurgencies, royal ousters and massacres, the devastating 2015 earthquakes and their aftermath, the COVID-19 pandemic, and more. Olga’s love for the people of Nepal, coupled with the buy-in, expertise, wisdom, and enthusiasm of the Nepali people themselves, has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families. Nepal is already witnessing the butterfly effect in motion, as individuals who benefitted from Olga’s influence as children have become successful business owners, advocates, NGO leaders, engineers, teachers, doctors, and much more. The difference Olga’s promise has made in the country is truly incalculable, and it continues to expand from her initial investment in the future of a handful of boys in a Kathmandu orphanage.

You can explore NYF’s remarkable programming here.

Olga’s Promise is now Our Shared Promise

Olga passionately championed NYF’s work until her passing in February 2024, at age 98. 

In the days ahead, the NYF Community is inspired to fulfill Olga’s promise to educate and empower Nepal’s children. Olga was always grateful to the NYF Community for sharing in this promise to empower Nepal’s children. She took great comfort (and pride!) in the knowledge that, thanks to friends like you, this remarkable work would continue well beyond her own extraordinary lifetime.

The Caste Equality Project—Our Most Ambitious Project Yet

In December 2022, during Olga’s last stay in Nepal, she and a team of NYF’s Nepali experts visited several Dalit-majority villages in Saptari District. Saptari District is a remote area of southeastern Nepal where casteism, systemic neglect, and other generational challenges have left families unable to leverage their incredible potential to build prosperity. Every shred of ingenuity, luck, sacrifice, hard work, and hope is focused on survival. And even these are often not enough.

“Dalit” castes are those that have historically been referred to as “untouchable.” Caste-based discrimination is illegal in Nepal, but in rural areas like Saptari District, access to legal recourse is rare. Many members of Dalit castes are not even aware that legal protections exist for them.

These communities will require a massive, intentional, multi-pronged offer of support in order to begin overcoming these challenges successfully and sustainably. For years, Olga and NYF have been eager to provide such support. In December 2022, following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olga was overjoyed to finally be getting this work underway.

Olga’s legacy lives on through the Caste Equality Project

Olga was 97 when she visited Saptari District, full of energy in her sturdy walking shoes. As has always been the case when she visited rural Nepal, locals expressed surprise at meeting a Westerner of such advanced age. They would have expected such a person to stick to more built-up areas of the country, where amenities and comforts were readily available. But it was important to Olga that she come personally to meet the communities NYF would be serving. Nepal is a country whose culture deeply respects elders—Olga’s presence among them, rather than comfortably bundled up someplace cozy, signaled that she, and the entire NYF Community, truly meant to help them.

“This is not a one- or two- or three- or four-year project,” Olga said, back in Kathmandu. “It could take 10, 20 years. But if NYF had a motto, it is, What we start, we finish. We’ll be there for the long haul for them. I just wish I could be around in 10 or 20 years to see the difference.

Boldly encouraging and championing the launch of the Caste Equality Project was among the last major projects of Olga’s lifetime. She knew she was incredibly unlikely to see the end of it, but she also trusted the NYF staff and the NYF community to share her promise and see this work through to the end.

Join us now to help keep Olga’s promise

Are you as inspired by Olga’s promise to Nepal’s children as we are? You can help us honor Olga’s memory right now by providing support for the Caste Equality Project.

In the coming weeks, NYF is providing hundreds of Saptari District children with uniforms, school supplies, and transportation support. We are stocking school kitchens with fresh, high-quality, nutrient-rich ingredients to combat widespread malnutrition and encourage school attendance.

This is an exciting grassroots push, designed to show local governments how many school-aged children exist in Saptari District. It will also show how unprepared the existing school infrastructure is to accommodate them. Our team is making sure parents across the area understand the strategy. They’re also making sure parents are prepared for the long process of advocacy and activism.

Our work in Saptari District will empower the community to be the primary agents within this important movement—exactly how Olga would have done it.

You can support this incredible work right away by donating today.