When Ellen Dietrich was asked how she — a single German woman and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — ended up as the surrogate parent to more than 200 children in Nepal, she gave an unexpected answer.
“I have never married,” said Dietrich in a recent phone interview with the Church News. “But of course the ‘Mormon’ idea of having a family is deeply rooted inside me.”
Many single women, especially within the Church, seem to feel that they have missed out on something in life by not marrying and having children of their own, she explained.
But Dietrich doesn’t feel that way.
“I think single women can come back to the Lord with full hands if they look for opportunities to serve and increase their love, or their capacity for love,” she said.
Starting with service
More than 20 years ago, after completing her studies in Germany, Dietrich decided to use some of her extra resources to support children in difficult circumstances from around the world. First, she sent money to support a child in Eritrea, a country in East Africa. Then she added support for another from Chile.
The more she gave, the more she wanted to give, and the number of children she supported continued to grow.
“So, I had a large family, financially speaking,” she said.
Each person she supported was like family to her and, even though she was only ever able to communicate with them by occasional letters, “they were in my heart,” Dietrich said.
By the late 1990s, after working with some of her friends and fellow Church members to donate through a friend’s organization to a group of children in Nepal, Dietrich saw a need there that she felt she could help with in a more personal way.
“I was happy supporting these children in different organizations,” Dietrich said. “And I had never intended doing one of my own. … But when I saw all the need, I just gained the courage to start out.”
In 1998, with a small amount of money from her personal funds and the few donors she was able to find, Dietrich founded her own organization — Self Help Nepal (or Home of Hope, as its commonly known). Starting with a single rental house in Kathmandu, Nepal, and 13 children who were either orphaned or from families who couldn’t afford to take care of their basic needs, Dietrich established a children’s home to support children from 4 or 5 years old to the end of their schooling and early adult years.
For Dietrich, what started as a simple organization — aimed at helping children have better opportunities in life — soon became a family and has given her a sense of purpose.
Building a family
At Home of Hope, the younger children begin their day standing in neat rows in a cement courtyard under the early morning Kathmandu sun. There, under the direction of the woman they affectionately refer to as “Ellen Auntie,” they start their morning routine by singing simple English nursery rhymes like “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” and dance around to get their wiggles out. After that, they move on to English pronunciation drills before heading off to the dining rooms for breakfast.
With three buildings rented in the heart of Kathmandu, Home of Hope houses more than 150 children and young adults and — apart from school, which the children attend each day at a separate private English medium school — the home supports all of their needs.
To help run the home, Dietrich employs a number of Nepali people who care for the children day and night. Both the staff and a handful of volunteers work regularly to cook, clean, tutor the children, help with their homework and generally act as parent figures for the children.
As the organization’s founder, Dietrich is constantly working to find new donors for the organization and, as such, she splits her time each year going back and forth between her native Germany and Nepal.
Although she is not always able to be with the children, for them, the heart of the home is “Ellen Auntie.”
Watching Dietrich interact with the children, especially the little ones, is an amazing experience, said Dani Edgar, a volunteer with Self Help Nepal who recently spent four months working with Dietrich and the children at Home of Hope.
When she is there, Dietrich spends as much time with each of the kids as possible, Edgar said. When the kids have study time, she is there to help the kids who need extra help and in the evenings, she’ll go on walks with them, eat dinner with them and help put them all to bed.
“She loves the kids and she’s very present with the kids when she’s there,” Edgar said. “And she has a special place in her heart for those little ones.”
Creating a lasting impact
For those who have grown up under Dietrich’s care, love, kindness and generosity, her influence has had an immeasurable impact on their lives.
Sachin Nepali, who first came to Home of Hope after his father died, said Dietrich changed his life and continues to be a great influence.
“I really respect her love, humanity and dedication towards us for this long period of time,” Nepali said. “I am very glad to have such a woman as my second mother who fulfills all the need and gives uncountable love towards me and other children and only works for the welfare of the children.”
Santoshi Dhungana, who is studying nursing in Australia, said one of the things she loved about growing up at Home of Hope was how Dietrich helped her to see her own value. Dietrich taught her to believe in herself, Dhungana said. Because of that, she feels she too can contribute to the lives of others.
After she finishes nursing school in Australia, Dhungana said she plans to return to Nepal and work as a nurse with children and help improve their lives like Dietrich improved hers.
“She made sure we had everything, … that we never missed anything from life,” Dhungana said. “Now I just hope that in the same situation somewhere I will be able to do the same things she did for us.”
For Ganga Adhikari, Dietrich is the reason she is now able to work in her dream job as a tour guide leading treks through Annapurna and the Everest Base Camp. The time Dietrich spent over the years helping her to learn English is the reason she is able to stand on her own and support herself, Adhikari said.
“Ellen is like a godmother to us,” said Dipendra Bk, another former child from Home of Hope. “The effort she shows and the dedication she has for the children is beyond what one can imagine.”
Dietrich’s altruism also extends beyond her work with the children, Bk noted.
Following the major earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015, Dietrich and her organization provided relief to many people in Kathmandu and surrounding areas who had lost their homes.
In everything she does, Dietrich shows her love, Bk said.
Whether she is finding ways to care for more children or finding ways to employ more people, Dietrich “just wants to help everyone that she can,” Edgar said. “She has the most generous heart.”
Finding joy and fulfillment
God created the world out of love for His children because He wanted them to progress, Dietrich said. And in this life, the most important goal is to “increase our capacity of love and to become more Christlike.”
“That’s how this work has influenced my life,” she said. “I think my capacity of love has developed very much through this work.”
With each child she has taken on, her love and appreciation for them and for everything in her life has increased, Dietrich said.
“I mean, service has become the most important part of my life,” she said.
For Edgar, Dietrich’s example of finding purpose and happiness through service has been invaluable.
“One thing that she really emphasized with me was how your life can be so full of meaning and fulfillment as you give and share love,” Edgar said.
During their time together in Nepal, Edgar said she and Dietrich bonded over their shared love for the gospel. Dietrich even bore her testimony to Edgar during her exit interview as a volunteer.
She testified about the love of the Savior and emphasized that, even if a person doesn’t fit the traditional mold of the gospel when it comes to marriage and family, true happiness, joy and fulfillment can be found by giving love, Edgar said. Dietrich emphasized that point repeatedly.
“She said there is a place for single women in the Church and in the world and that you can have complete fulfillment and joy in your life as you give love, no matter who it is that you’re loving,” Edgar said. And both Dietrich and her work stand as a powerful example of that truth.
“I loved to see her example of empowerment, you know, on an international stage, that she knew what she wanted to do and she has done it her whole life,” Edgar said.
For Dietrich, the children in Nepal and the family she has formed with them have given meaning and purpose to her life in ways that many people who dwell on being single don’t find.
But, of course, not everyone has to go to Nepal to find that meaning, she said.
“You can develop that same feeling through ministering or helping a neighbor,” Dietrich said. “But my life led me to Nepal — for one reason or another — and it has given me a lot of satisfaction and gratitude to the Lord for all the blessings He has bestowed upon me.”