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Weekend festivities to benefit Tibet

May 8, 2008

The Intelligencer Journal, Lancaster, PA, USA
May 6, 2008

Tibet may seem a million miles away, but this weekend, it'll be in the local spotlight.

Before Mary Ellen Francescani became an intensive care unit nurse at Lancaster Regional Medical Center, when she was fresh out of college, she toured Tibet with her best friend. It was 1993, and she fell in love with the Tibetans and everything else about the Roof of the World, as the Himalayan region is known.

"They were jolly, jovial, kind and hospitable people," she said. "We just felt really fortunate to be there. We were completely taken with the Tibetan culture and the people. That was the seed that started my interest in Tibet. Over time, I learned about what was happening there politically."

Now she has parlayed that knowledge into a weekend's worth of music, food and speakers to raise money for Students for a Free Tibet, a group spreading awareness about the history and current political situation in Tibet.

In 1949, Chinese troops began occupying Tibet, which was then considered a sovereign nation. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the occupation but eventually fled to exile in India in 1959. One hundred thousand refugees streamed out of the country as well.

Francescani grew to love the region after she married and worked as a nurse for the Peace Corps and the American embassy in Nepal for five years. After political unrest erupted in Nepal, she and her husband, Lancaster native Jerry Lapp, moved to Lancaster County.

But her impression of the Tibetans and their plight remained fresh in her memory.

"Lots of Tibetan refugees live in Nepal," she said. "Being there really made us aware of the crazy situation in an amazing country that has been so squashed by the Chinese. Monasteries have been spray-painted. They've ruined Buddhist statues. There are cameras all over the streets, and the Tibetans live in so much fear if they rise up at all. It's so oppressive. It's disturbing."

Then Francescani's friend, Lancaster physician Cynthia Kilbourn, trekked through part of Nepal. That helped the two women develop a common interest in the region and its people.

"They had an amazing experience," Francescani said. "She caught the fever of Nepal, Tibet and Buddhism, and also became focused on the cause."

The friends got to talking one night and decided it was time to do something to help — now, while the world is focused on China, the location of this summer's Olympic games.

"There's never been more focus on China," Francescani said. "If China's ever going to improve any of their human-rights policies, this is the time. They're in the spotlight."

And that was the birth of a weekend's worth of events to raise money and awareness here to help people over there.

What came together is a sort of a casual Saturday on a Washington Boro farm with music, food and a silent auction. The event will be held rain or shine from 3 to 11 p.m. at Simple Gifts Farm, 2121 River Road, Washington Boro.

Then, at 1 p.m. Sunday, Tibet expert and journalist Thomas C. Laird will speak at Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster, 538 W. Chestnut St., about historical events leading to Tibet's current political situation. Laird has written several books about Tibet, including his latest, "The Story of Tibet: Conversations With the Dalai Lama," for which he spent 60 hours in one-on-one interviews with the Dalai Lama, covering a range of topics.

Kilbourn's family has connections in the local music scene, so it was easy to pull together musicians willing to play for eight hours. Performers include John Protopapas on sitar, the Lonesome Stragglers, Jordan Rast, the Cultivators, Living Fables and Root and Wing. Businesses also signed on to help, so Kilbourn and Francescani will hold a silent auction of donations from businesses including Dosie Dough coffee shop, Sunrise Health Arts, Evolution Yoga Studio, Radiance and Snippers hair salon.

Free beverages will be served, and foods including wraps, soups, bread and desserts will be sold.

The suggested donation for the farm event is $10 for adults, $5 for students and free for children 12 and younger. Sunday's event is free.
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