Receiving a two-liter bottle of Coke as a gift may not seem very significant, but this past September it brought Barbara Cunningham to tears.

Cunningham, a Forest Parker who has owned and operated a cashmere importing business for six years, Silk Road Importers, was traveling with her fianc Tom for the second time to Nepal, a small, poor Asian country, to pick up supplies for her business. She gets her cashmere directly from Nepal because they have “the best stuff in the world,” and money goes directly to the Nepalese people, Cunningham said.

She was also visiting the eight Nepalese school children that are benefiting from an all-male Oak Park River Forest High School service group, Dudes Makin’ a Difference (DMD). Through social contacts, Cunningham helped organize DMD with other area parents.

Two of the children, Diku Sherpa and Lapka Sherpa, are young girls with epilepsy. With the funds raised by DMD the girls were able to start boarding school and get the medicine they needed to stop their epileptic seizures.

The girls’ father, Mr. Lama, was so thankful for DMD’s support that he walked for three days from his village and took buses for another day to reach Cunningham in Kathmandu, so he could present her with a two-liter bottle of Coke and “prayer scarves” as a token of his appreciation.

“We were all just standing there with tears in our eyes when he bent down to put these prayer scarves around our necks as a sign of peace and thanks,” Cunningham said. “He just presented this bottle of Coke like it was a Faberge egg, and we’re all crying, and he’s crying.

“These are normal little girls now who are going to be able to have a good life. It’s pretty amazing what a little bit of money can do.”

Cunningham is friends with the mothers of DMD’s original members, Janet Schiffman, Gale Clarke and Alexis Rasley. She met them through the Infant Welfare Society, and told the moms about a Nepalese schoolboy, Sonam Lama, whom she was supporting. The moms were so intrigued they invited Cunningham to talk to their sons.

“I took a bunch of pictures with me, we ended up talking, and three hours later we had the name Dudes Makin’ a Difference, and these kids had agreed to try and raise money to educate more kids,” Cunningham said.

It costs $400 to put a Nepalese child through one year of boarding school, about twice as much with room and board, and DMD has come up with enough funds for eight children. They’d like to eventually raise enough money to put them through all 12 years of school.

“They’re children who otherwise wouldn’t have any opportunity for education,” Mrs. Schiffman said. “A lot of these children grow up and have to work immediately – or their parents can’t afford to educate them or even raise them, so they send them to monasteries where they have to almost be like slaves. They sleep all day, they sleep on mats, they have one bowl of rice a day, and that’s kind of their existence.”

Cunningham was surprised by how different boarding schools in Nepal are from ones in the United States. Ten children slept in one room in bunk beds, shoulder-to-shoulder. They spend 10 hours a day studying on small mats with just a 45-minute break.

The rapid progress of the children’s learning also was a surprise. Sonam Lama couldn’t speak a lick of English during Cunningham’s visit last year, but now he can carry on a conversation.

“A year ago he was being sent to the monastery because his parents couldn’t afford to keep him, and now he has a future,” Cunningham said.

DMD recently became an official club at the high school, and also held its Second Annual Dudes Makin’ a Difference International Holiday Gift Sale, Dec. 7 at the high school cafeteria. The sale, which featured homemade candies, ceramics, jewelry and Nepalese clothing items provided by Cunningham, raised about $1,200. That’s enough money to put three more children through school for a year.

“Chances are these kids will never meet each other, but what an impact they’re having on the lives of total strangers,” Cunningham said. “It’s amazing.”