Natalie Gomez has a pretty good excuse for missing this week’s AP biology test.
She’ll be in Dharamsala, India, for a meeting with the Dalai Lama.
The 16-year-old Bonney Lake resident is flying to India with five other high school students from Washington as part of the Compassion 2020 program, organized by Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib and the state service organization, Association of Washington Generals.
When she got the email about the competition this past summer, Gomez said she knew a little bit about the Dalai Lama from her AP Human Geography class, but enough to know that “this is an amazing opportunity. I might as well apply.”
The idea for the trip grew out of a desire to invite the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader back to Washington. The Dalai Lama visited the state in 2008 and urged people to exercise compassion, set aside differences and connect with others. Habib traveled to Dharamsala last year to invite him back, but the 84-year-old has scaled back his travel because of health concerns.
So Habib will lead the Washington students and civic leaders to India to meet with him there. The aim is to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama about how to bridge divides and cultivate understanding in civic discourse, Habib said.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve got to recognize that this last decade was not an overwhelming success when it comes to compassion in our public life in America,” Habib said.
Gomez and the other five students have proposed “compassion projects” to undertake in their communities. She’s still working on the details of her project, but knows it will center on the issue of homelessness, which she said has become a contentious issue in Bonney Lake and surrounding communities amid increased development.
“Someone put up a sign by the dollar store a few months ago saying, 'Don’t give your change out to panhandlers. Save your money – it just goes to drugs,’” Gomez said. “That hurts my heart because I feel like people don’t really realize that these are other human beings out here who need help.”
Gomez said she’s excited to go out of the country for the first time. Kaya Sol, 15, lives in Shelton and said the only other foreign country she’s visited is Canada.
How does Sol feel to be able to meet the Dalai Lama and get advice from him on her compassion project?
“I feel honored, I guess is the correct word for that,” Sol said.
Sol and her five younger siblings were adopted out of foster care. Her project focuses on finding a better way for foster youth to transport their belongings.
“Social workers have to opt for trash bags, and that just makes a horrible situation feel a lot worse,” Sol said. “So my idea was helping resolve this issue by making pillowcase bags for the kids as something that other people can do to show that they care and that they can use that makes them feel a little bit better.”
The other students who will travel to Dharamsala include Sontri Jorkhang of Shoreline, Henry Ho of Seattle, Ruby Joyce of Vashon Island and Kaylee Meyers of Edmonds. Their meeting with the Dalai Lama will be streamed live online this coming Sunday. There also will be viewing parties at some college campuses, and attendees at those parties will have a chance to submit questions to the Dalai Lama.
Habib said people may find it surprising to hear that the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists has embraced technology such as live-streaming.
“He’s somebody who really believes that we should lean into and embrace technology,” Habib said. “What a powerful statement because technology has – not inaccurately – been viewed as in many ways contributing to a deficit of compassion and some of these challenges we face. So there’s a nice elegance to the idea of using it to engage in this conversation for our state.”