Neelam Canto-Lugo has taught speech at Yuba College for more than 30 years. Instead of retiring, she changed her teaching schedule to part-time and devotes the rest of her time volunteering for an international organization.
Her work in Nepal this past year earned her a trip to Washington, D.C., to accept a Volunteer of the Year award.
After hearing about US Aid and Winrock International through a Yuba College colleague, Canto-Lugo applied to become a volunteer. In May, she went on her first trip to Nepal, and on a second trip in September. For three weeks each time, she met with women and youth and taught them "soft skills" like goal-setting, self-esteem building, proposal writing, public speaking, resume building and interview skills.
"I can't say that it's selfless, because I get a lot out of it," Canto-Lugo said. "It brings me a lot of joy."
Canto-Lugo is the recipient of the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance Volunteer of the Year Award for Farmer-to-Farmer 2016, and will be traveling to D.C. next week to receive the award.
Canto-Lugo said she is friends on Faceook with many of the women she has met in Nepal, and they all keep in contact almost daily. She said women and youth particularly face a number of issues in Terai -- the rural, southern portion of Nepal — like a caste system, a heavy dowry system, child marriage, human trafficking and drug use.
She said another issue faced by youth is unemployment. Many have to travel to gulf countries to work in poor conditions for 15 or 16-hour days, sometimes their passports being held so they cannot return home.
"We lift them up and train them to be an integral part of society," she said. "I've never met such kind people."
From colleges to a dairy farm to small villages, Canto-Lugo traveled the countryside to meet locals and help train them with job and life skills.
Now, she is the director of International Partnerships for Women Development Advocacy Center, the organization she was matched with by Winrock and US Aid. She is fundraising for three main projects the non-profit is hoping to tackle next: digital literacy training for rural women; micro-entrepreneurship, where women will meet 15 small-business people and learn how to market and "scale up"; and soft skills training. So far, Canto-Lugo has raised half of her $20,000 goal.
"Neelam exemplifies the kind of impact highly skilled volunteers have in combating poverty, promoting prosperity and engaging communities abroad and at home," said VEGA CEO and President Michael Deal in a statement. "Volunteers like Neelam convey the best of American values and forge partnerships through person-to-person diplomacy that helps to create a more stable and secure world."
For Canto-Lugo, volunteering and helping others is something that was instilled in her family when she was young, and she is surprised to have won this award.
"I really didn't think I'm doing anything outstanding," she said. "They do just as much and more for me, that's how I feel."
For those interested in donating to the various projects to aid women and youth in rural Nepal, call Canto-Lugo at 701-1459 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.