Writer / Kara Kavensky
Photographer / Brian Brosmer
While planting trees in Jeff Papa’s front yard in 2003, Jeff and Steve Wolff discussed how privileged they were to be where they are in their current positions and how far they had come. They admired the work of those around them, such as Barnes & Thornburg partner Bob Grand with his support of Little Red Door. Jeff and Steve were thinking out loud, exploring ideas for their own philanthropic impact.
At that time, Jeff was a senior associate attorney with Barnes & Thornburg and Steve was one of Jeff’s interns. While Steve is well traveled, few people on the planet have traveled to as many countries as Jeff. With more than 50 and counting, Jeff’s view of the world expanded when he spent his first of five summers in Russia and Ukraine, beginning when he was earning his undergraduate degree at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Jeff has also taught English in Korea and Nepal.
Through their conversation, Jeff disclosed his friendships and contacts in Nepal and Steve suggested he reach out to them, exploring the logistics and costs of opening an orphanage. Within 10 days of sending an initial email inquiring about the proposed project, Jeff asked Steve to view the response of their query.
“The email had 10 attachments, which included photos, architectural renderings, information on donated land, government agency approvals, cost analysis, information on children who would benefit … basically everything we would need to establish an orphanage,” says Jeff, who is now Chief of Staff/Chief Legal Counsel for the Indiana Senate and a Zionsville Town Council Member. “Thus began YETI, Inc.”
“We reviewed the costs and realized we had to do this,” says Steve, who is now a law clerk with Barnes & Thornburg in their government affairs and finance department.
YETI was originally co-founded by Jeff, Steve, and Ann Thrasher. Once the initial seed money was raised, 10 children moved in by February, 2005. The number of children has steadily increased to 26, which is the current maximum number the facility can house.
The YETI orphanage is in a remote Nepalese jungle area that has experienced a 10-year civil war, leaving many widows and subsequent orphans. What may be surprising is the children in the orphanage are viewed as being better off than the non-orphans in that area.
“Our kids, when done with school, have time to do their chore rotations, but are mostly studying, while the village kids are required to work in the fields,” explains Jeff.
The building of the YETI orphanage spurred development, providing the village more stability. The government built an elementary school next to the orphanage, which has leveraged other NGOs to provide needed resources, such as a library and a computer lab. These are of great benefit to the area’s children. By having basic necessities, the children are able to play, learn, and study.
While the average Nepali receives 2.5 years of schooling, the YETI program offers far more than that, and now that children are aging out and new ones being brought in, the founders are witnessing the reasons why they originally created YETI.
“The last trip I took to Nepal was a special one,” shares Steve, speaking of his August, 2016 trip to the orphanage, which was his seventh. “In some ways they will always be kids in my mind, but now some are adults and we have effectively removed them from the cycle of poverty. Some have returned to help or stop in to say hello, some are in college or married with families of their own.”
It makes perfect sense for the YETI graduates to return. After all, it was their home and family. Given the proof of the past couple years, YETI has succeeded in helping its orphans become functioning adults, contributing to their society in meaningful ways. YETI’s goal is self-sufficiency, and keeping its focus, it has made a great impact.
Jeff’s experience with YETI has a surprising influence on his current role with the Indiana State Senate.
Around November of 2007, Barnes & Thornburg LLP named Jeff to its list of partners, set to take effect January, 2008. He also had an opportunity with Rose-Hulman to serve as the President’s Chief of Staff, but Jeff opted for a role where he had the greatest opportunity for cultivating talent, choosing instead to be Chief of Staff/Chief Legal Counsel at the Indiana State Senate. With this position, he feels he has a great impact working with students via the Senate Internship Program. Jeff enjoys the creative and strategic input of working with talented individuals. Steve is one of those talented individuals, for he was Jeff’s intern at Jeff at Barnes & Thornburg and he is now finishing law school while overseeing his own team of interns.
Perhaps what may surprise people is that one of the brightest minds in the statehouse grew up in poverty, and if you account for the disparity of socio-economic differences between the U.S. and Nepal, Jeff’s childhood was not that dissimilar to those children whom they serve through YETI. Opening an orphanage was a happy side effect of the hearts that brought it to fruition.
YETIS’s 14th Annual Silent Auction and Dinner will be March 8 at Barnes & Thornburg. While YETI’s fundraising efforts fully fund the orphanage in Nepal, it also provides funds to organizations across Indiana, such as the Holy Family Shelter, which serves more than 1,000 people each year on the near west side of Indianapolis.
The 10 members of the YETI board are all volunteers. YETI has no employees and no overhead expenses, with 100 percent of the funds raised going directly to children in the orphanage or to underprivileged children in the U.S. (minimum of 10 to 15 percent). In addition to the annual dinner, 75 percent of funds raised at its St. Patrick’s Day event are donated to Holy Family Shelter, with 25 percent allocated to the orphanage in Nepal. This event is free of charge.
“We Skype with the children from the orphanage at YETI’s annual dinner, so donors who don’t have the chance to meet these wonderful kids in person will still have an opportunity to interact and understand exactly where their money is going,” shares YETI board member and SAS account executive Maddison Klontz Miller, who was inspired by the YETI program to earn her Master of Public Administration degree. “Having personally visited the orphanage, what I found was a loving family. These children were truly brothers and sisters, their caretakers seemingly parents, and the orphanage itself a safe, nurturing home. With only 26 children, standards focus on quality not quantity. The kids receive the unique attention they deserve, while enjoying the space to study and play.”