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Cooperation and Compassion Instill Good Karma in Kunga House

March 28, 2003 — Finishing touches are being added to the Kunga House. Workers are laying carpet, painting floors and landscaping the yard-all in anticipation of a grand celebration, a “house warming,” to be held onsite, Saturday, Apr. 12, at noon. Members of the media and those who have worked on the extraordinary project are invited to attend. The Kunga House is located at 64 Andrew Avenue (1500 South), between West Temple and Main Street.

Named after the nine-member family that will soon move in, the Kunga House is much more than a home. Many involved with the undertaking say it is the incarnation of good will, offered up by hundreds-ditch diggers, attorneys, University of Utah students and their professor, bankers, community agencies, elected officials and others-who volunteered to help a local Tibetan family solve its problems.

The Kungas’ odyssey began when Thupten Kunga left Tibet on foot in 1959, as did his wife Phurbu Dolma, whom he met and married later in Dharamsala, India. As the head of the household, Thupten had the opportunity to come to Salt Lake City in 1993 as part of the U.S. Tibetan Resettlement Project, which granted 1,000 U.S. visas to the Tibetan government-in-exile. After arriving in Utah, Thupten worked hard to gain U.S. citizenship and to bring his wife Phurbu and, eventually, all seven of their children to join them here. The last two children recently joined them.

In September 2000, Phurbu was in a car accident that rendered her paraplegic. As both she and her husband had been working two jobs, the family’s income dropped dramatically because Phurbu could no longer work outside the home. Phurbu also had medical expenses of more than $200,000 and no health coverage. Phurbu and Thupten came to attorneys Dan Hindert and Larry Stevens, with the law firm of Parsons Behle & Latimer, for help in bringing a personal injury claim. The attorneys confirmed that the maximum recovery of available insurance proceeds was limited to $50,000. And that would leave the family in very difficult circumstances-with crushing medical bills and little opportunity for Phurbu to continue working.

Hindert says this case required special handling in order to actually make a difference for Phurbu and her family. First, Hindert and Stevens worked with LDS Hospital and all of Phurbu’s caregivers to discount her medical bills-based on pro-rata shares from the available $50,000 net of attorney’s fees. Most, but not all, of the caregivers agreed. Next, they asked all those who agreed to this pro-rata reduction to consider joining the attorneys in contributing their share of what was owed to a special fund for Phurbu and her family. LDS Hospital and Intermountain Health Care (IHC), together with all of their affiliated caregivers, took the lead in supporting this plan. In this way, all of Phurbu’s medicals bills were satisfied, and more than $45,000 of the original $50,000 recovery was preserved for the family’s benefit.

The next question was how to apply these dollars to really make a difference. At this point the lawyers turned to the nonprofit Community Development Corporation (CDC), an organization that specializes in helping low- to moderate-income families obtain homes of their own. “The family met all the criteria to work with us,” says Mark Lundgren, CDC’s director of technical services. In addition, Salt Lake City Corporation agreed to provide a low-interest home mortgage for the family, and the Kungas were selected to receive a principal reduction grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle.

When the CDC took on the project, the nonprofit agency enlisted the help of Hank Louis, an assistant visiting professor in the U’s Graduate School of Architecture. He, in turn, passed the design and construction challenge onto his University graduate students. The goal? To design a structure that was sustainable, wheelchair accessible and that would incorporate the family’s religious needs. The result? The first straw bale home to be built in Salt Lake City, with affordability, energy-efficiency, sustainable materials and all kinds of value-added extras-even a Tibetan Buddhist shrine-incorporated into the design.

The 2,000-square-foot, post-and-beam structure consists of five-bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen and common area as well as plenty of patio space outside. The landscaping, also designed by a U student, incorporates sustainable plants, water conservation and meets the needs of a gardener who is disabled. Landscaping materials are being donated by Squatter’s Pub & Brewery and planted by 100 volunteers from the company on Saturday, March 29, and Saturday, April 5, from 8 a.m. until noon.

Five key partners participated in the Kunga House project: the University of Utah, the Community Development Corporation, Parsons Behle & Latimer law firm, Intermountain Health Care and Salt Lake City Corporation. Notes CDC Executive Director Bruce Quint, “Through the combined effort of these partners and many other donors, the Kunga family now has a home of their own.”