Vermonter builds his American dream on paying it forward

Vermonter builds his American dream on paying it forward

ESSEX - Ongyel Sherpa's dream almost ended at the international airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, before he had a chance to try to make a new life in the United States. 

Sherpa, 38, recalled the crucial moment recently at his home office in Essex, where he runs US Sherpa, a quickly growing business selling handmade knitwear and other products from Nepal through about 200 retail stores, including Outdoor Gear Exchange and Phoenix Books in Burlington. Sherpa also offers trekking expeditions to the Himalayas.

Sherpa says his business has grown by 20 to 25 percent, year over year, for the past six years. He declined to share revenue figures.  The business' origin story starts when Sherpa was 18 years old in 1998. He was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by Dr. Geoff Tabin to leave Nepal to come to Vermont to live with Tabin's family and babysit his young children.

Tabin had summited Mt. Everest a decade earlier with Sherpa's uncle, which is how Tabin got to know the young man.

"We had two kids in a two-physician household," Tabin remembered. "Ongyel wanted to improve his English. He was an amazing kid."

As a general doctor in Nepal, Tabin said he was inspired when he saw a Dutch team visit the country to do cataract surgery.

"It was so transformative for people who were totally blind, restoring their lives and their sight," Tabin said.

Tabin decided to return to the United States to train as an opthalmologist, then moved back to Nepal to work for a couple of years. Later, Tabin founded the Himalayan Cataract Project with his partner, Dr. Sanduk Ruit, and moved to Burlington, working at what was then called Fletcher Allen hospital and teaching at the University of Vermont medical school.


The Himalayan Cataract Project has brought inexpensive cataract surgery to hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal and 14 other countries.  Tabin was featured in an episode of the CBS news program 60 Minutes last year.

The project, which is headquartered in Waterbury, was also one of eight finalists for a $100 million grant from The MacArthur Foundation in 2017. The grant ultimately went to Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee for their proposal to educate Middle Eastern refugee children.

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