Gregarious and warm, Real Change Vendor Sharon Sherpa has an effervescent energy that inspires and motivates those around her. Sharon works every day to build up those around her, from the women she has gotten to know in shelters she has stayed at throughout Seattle to her customers at Real Change. Sharon’s compassion for others and ability to find joy and humor have transcended multiple international moves, family tragedy and bad luck.
Sharon was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she lived until she was 22. It’s a place she speaks of lovingly.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be from Nepal — a landlocked country that doesn’t dwell in war. [The Nepalis] are sweet people who live their lives day to day,” Sharon said.
Sharon grew up in a middle class family in Kathmandu, the oldest of three sisters. Her family ran an airline company that transported tourists to Mount Everest, and Sharon’s first job was as a flight attendant on her family’s airline. In 2010, Sharon’s youngest sister, Sarah, was tragically killed in an airplane crash aboard one of her family’s aircrafts, where she also worked as a flight attendant. Sharon’s mother also passed away in 2014. These huge losses devastated Sharon’s family, and she describes it as a time of immense shock and lasting depression. Nevertheless, she said, “I felt the pressure that I still need to succeed in life. ... I didn’t want to deteriorate.”
Sharon moved to Tokyo where she found work as a server at the Radisson hotel. She already spoke Hindi, Nepali and English. While living in Tokyo she also became fluent in Japanese. She also speaks a bit of French and German, and she is working on learning Spanish. As she puts it, “the best words to say in any culture are ‘thank you.’”
While in Japan, Sharon found herself in a bad relationship that she needed to get out of. She secured her American visa and a recommendation letter from her manager at the Radisson.
“I packed up my stuff. I went straight to the airport,” Sharon said. “I said I want to go to America, I bought a ticket for 90,000 yen, and I said, ‘God bless America — here I come!’”
After first flying into Los Angeles, she called an American woman with whom she had connected in Tokyo. It turned out that her connection lived in Seattle, and Sharon flew to Seattle to stay with her.
She liked the laid-back pace of Seattle, which was different from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. She viewed her move to the States as a chance to “heal her heart,” and she found comfort and support in Seattle’s Nepalese community. Sharon found a place to live in the University District and worked at a Nepali restaurant on the Ave. She also worked as a front desk agent at the Pacific Plaza hotel, where she drew on her skills as a multilingual speaker and met people from all over the world.
In 2017, Sharon moved to Portland to work a security position. In 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharon had vital documents stolen from her, including her social security card and visa. American visas cannot be replaced in the country, and having these documents stolen made life immensely difficult for Sharon, preventing her from finding employment. She found herself living on the streets of Portland.
In 2021, Sharon found her way back to Seattle. She ran into a Real Change vendor, who told her about the newspaper and how to become a vendor. She had seen vendors selling the Street Roots newspaper in Portland and thought that it might work for her. She likes selling Real Change because it allows her to be her own boss and to set her own hours.
“Some people don’t want to work a 9-to-5 job; it’s understandable,” she said.
Someday, she’d like to start a street paper in Nepal, where she would work with — and help empower — young people. Sharon’s time in Seattle shelters, including WHEEL, the Salvation Army and St. James Cathedral, have also deeply impacted her.
“The people I see on the streets, I used to cook for them all the time, and I see a goodness in them,” Sharon said. Moving forward, she wants to be able to give back and continue lifting up those around her.
Sharon’s life of late has been tumultuous. She and her partner recently secured a spot in a tiny home in South Seattle, allowing them to get out of living in a tent and into a place that feels more like home. At the same time, she was recently diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Sharon is still in the process of figuring out how to receive treatment. She has spent long, frustrating hours on the phone with cancer treatment providers without being able to talk to a real person. However, she is grateful to have a community here in Seattle for support.
“I feel blessed. Now, a lot of my real family is here, and I have garnered a lot of good American friends. To have somebody by your side is very important,” Sharon said.
Jacob Schear is the Real Change organizer in the advocacy department. Contact him at [email protected]
Read more of the Jun 1-7, 2022 issue.