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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Takes Kyrgyz Orphans Up Mountains

APGarth Willis, 38, talking with Kyrgyz children at the Voyenno-Antonovsky Children's Home.
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- The craggy, snow-covered peaks of the Tien Shan mountains seem tantalizingly close standing on the dusty soccer field at the Voyenno-Antonovsky Children's Home.

But they were impossibly out of reach for the orphanage's children -- until Garth Willis came to town.

Combining his love of climbing nurtured in the Kyrgyz mountains with a passion to help Kyrgyz children, the American started a nonprofit group that is making Kyrgyzstan's richness in alpine terrain accessible to poor youngsters.

About 200 children have taken trips with the Alpine Fund since it was founded nearly two years ago.

Willis, from St. Paul, Minnesota, originally hoped to train children as mountain guides so they could find work. But he quickly realized they lacked many basic skills and has expanded the program to include English lessons and internships at the Alpine Fund office.

The fund's special targets are older children about to graduate from the orphanage, who also get frank talks about the facts of life and AIDS education during their mountain treks.

"They're so sheltered. When they leave here, they're not ready for life at all," said Willis, 38.

Fifteen-year-old Yegor Kasatkin, at the orphanage since he was 6, has been on 15 trips with the Alpine Fund, hiking and learning about nature, playing games and singing camp songs.

"There it's beautiful, the air is fresh and everything's nice," Yegor said. "It's more interesting, and you can see beautiful things."

He said he wants to be car mechanic or welder when he leaves the orphanage in about a year, but also said he could see himself trying for a career as a mountain guide.

Garth Willis / AP

Children hiking to the Almadin Valley near Bishkek in an expedition last summer.

Willis first came to Kyrgyzstan in 1995, planning to stay six months to learn Russian and climb the peaks here that attract alpinists from all over the world. He ended up staying three years, teaching English, helping create a debate club program at schools and founding a college newspaper.

After going back to the United States to complete graduate studies in international education development at Boston University, Willis sought a U.S. State Department grant to return to Kyrgyzstan.

He said the interviewers were skeptical, asking: "How do we know you're not just going climbing?"

He said he convinced them ("I care about the country and the people") and soon was on his way back to Central Asia.

In fact, the lure of the mountains proved too great, he sheepishly admitted. He said he went climbing for two months when he first returned in August 2000.

But when he got back to the capital, Bishkek, Willis saw a UNICEF-financed film about the Voyenno-Antonovsky Orphanage, called the UN agency and got in touch with the film's producers. Within two weeks, he had a fully financed group going.

Willis still gets grants from UNICEF as well as about $5,000 from private donors in the United States, where the Alpine Fund is a legally registered nonprofit organization.

Arriving at the orphanage recently for a game of pickup soccer with some volunteers, children ran to greet Willis, hug him and shake his hand.

Zamir Momunaleyev, deputy director of the orphanage, said the home embraced the opportunity when Willis offered to take children on trips to the mountains.

"I first saw a person who was well-meaning, who had a way with children," said Momunaleyev, whose center is home to 118 children ages 7 to 16.

Without the Alpine Fund, Momunaleyev said trips to the mountains would be only a dream. Although the orphanage is financed by the state, its officials still need outside donations just to afford such essential items as clothes and vegetables.

With the increased global attention on Central Asia after the Sept. 11 attacks, Willis hopes the Alpine Fund will attract more outside notice. American troops based at Manas airport near Bishkek for anti-terrorist operations in nearby Afghanistan have joined in some of the training sessions with children.

In the southern city of Osh, the Alpine Fund supports a local alpine guide who takes street children on mountain trips. Danfung Dennis, 20, of Ithaca, New York, volunteered there over the summer and is taking the fall semester off from Cornell University to keep working with the group.

He said the children really come alive when they head to the peaks.

"Going to these mountains that they've seen all the time but never had a chance to go to, it's a thrill," Dennis said.

For more information on the Alpine Fund visit