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February 19, 2013
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Engaging with Indian poverty, Yvonne Neuman finds peace

ASPEN - Yvonne Neuman was familiar with the warning: that people who visit India become overwhelmed by the poverty, finding it impossible to get out of their minds. In fact, the reason that Neuman, an adventurous traveler, hadn't been to India was that her husband - who has practiced Indian meditation techniques for decades, and took his name, Mithra, from the Sanskrit word for "friend to all" - was reluctant to witness the country's hardship.

But the couple's first trip to the Subcontinent in 2006 was scheduled specifically so they could photograph the Durga Puja festival, a celebratory event of spiritual rituals and dance. Properly prepared for the poverty, and focused on the festival, Neuman was uninfected by any gloominess.

"It was fascinating, wonderful - the colors, the food, the smells, the people," Neuman said.

That 10-day stay in Calcutta was satisfying enough that the Neumans called their tour guide and asked him to arrange another trip, just a few months later. This time they visited the Orissa, a mountain tribe of topless women, men with bows and arrows, and crushing poverty. That cracked a shell: When Neuman returned home to London, she couldn't shake what she had seen.

"I felt unsettled, moping," she said. "I'd go to Harrods and see all this wealth, Sloane Street, where the designer shops are, and feel repulsed. I've got everything to be happy, and all I kept thinking of was India. I had to find my peace and happiness."

Neuman's self-prescribed cure was to immerse herself in India. A former pharmacist who spent most of her adult years raising two sons, she spent months researching prostitution and slavery among children in Calcutta. She also researched nongovernmental charity organizations operating in India and on her next trip visited six of them. When she founded her own nonprofit, Vital for Children, she selected three existing organizations to partner with.

"All I wanted to do was get my happiness back," said Neuman, who was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents, a situation that led to racial persecution. "My unhappiness had to do with India. So I had to do something with India."

Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, Neuman doesn't see herself as the type to build a sprawling network. Instead, Vital essentially comprises Neuman herself and whatever good works she can provide. On her trips to India, two to three a year now, she goes to the projects to teach the street kids and child prostitutes, take them to the beach, water parks and movies, feed them. She works with the NGOs to find classroom space and provide sources of clean water. When she finds others who are interested in assisting, she brings them to India, to show them all that needs to be done. Neuman has been to India often enough, and has been enough of a hands-on presence, that children run up to her when she visits.

Perhaps the biggest part of Neuman's job now is fundraising. "That's all I do," she said. This past November, she threw a black-tie dinner at England's House of Lords, sponsored by a couple, a baron and baroness, who are patrons of Vital.

Two years ago, the Neumans bought a house in Aspen and, naturally, Neuman has brought her fundraising efforts with her. On Wednesday, Vital will hold an informational meeting for anyone interested in learning about the organization. The meeting, at 4 p.m., will be at Pyramid Bistro, above Explore Booksellers.

On March 2, Vital will present a benefit concert at the Wheeler Opera House by Adam Gyorgy, a Hungarian pianist who has an international performing career and runs a foundation for young musicians. In his Aspen debut, Gyorgy will perform improvisations and works by Liszt. The event also will include a silent auction; among the items available are an afternoon tea at the House of Lords, and a tour of Highgrove Gardens, Prince Charles' country home, with a Champagne tea.

Neuman is adamant that the funds raised for Vital go to the primary purpose of helping kids in Calcutta. Administrative costs are paid by the Neuman Foundation. "No paying for printing the brochures," she said. "No paying for T-shirts, for flights. We wanted to be the one where 100 percent of the proceeds go to the children. Donors dictate exactly where their funds go."

Neuman hasn't gotten immune to what she sees in India. On her trips, she is too busy to indulge her emotions. "Then when no one's watching, what you've stored up for 10 days, you let it all out," she said.

Running Vital leaves Neuman frantic. When in Aspen, she is often up at 5 a.m. so she can talk to people in London, and even a day on the slopes can be problematic - enjoying a ski day is difficult: "It's dangerous. I can't stop thinking. I can't switch it off," she said.

That feeling of unhappiness, though, is gone.

"I've found so much inner peace," she said. "I've learned to appreciate everything I've got. A clean glass of water. Clean bedsheets. That I can go see a doctor if I have a cough. One night I was walking home from the Wheeler and thought, I'm just so happy to be alive."

stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Feb 19, 2013 06:08AM Published Feb 19, 2013 12:56AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.