Since the strife of the Tibetan people was brought to US public attention decades ago, there has been a steady currant of organizations and volunteers offering time and resources to help free the state from China's firm grip—or at least preserve the Tibetan way of life. Nena Thurman, managing director of Phoenicia's Menla Mountain Retreat, holds this cause close to her heart.
Thurman—who was raised in Sweden—became interested in the culture when she met her now-husband Robert, one of the most respected scholars of Tibetan language and history. After 45 years of marriage—they are both 70 years old—Tibetan culture is still an integral part of their lives. When the Dalai Lama approached Robert in the 1980s with the idea to build a facility that's part embassy, part cultural center, the result was Tibet House, located in New York City. And Nena sought to help where she could. "I'm on the board of Tibet House and have been a full-time volunteer since 1992," she says. "And when Tibet House was given the Menla Mountain Retreat center 10 years ago, I became the center's manager. It is a destination for yoga, meditation, and other forms of healing operated by Tibet House."
Prior to meeting her husband, Thurman was one of the worlds top 10 models in the early 1960s. She was scouted by the Ford modeling agency at age 17—"I'm six feet tall and blond. Very Swedish," she laughs—and moved to the US to pursue her career. She modeled until age 25, when she took on the calling of motherhood and raised four children with Robert (including award-winning actress Uma Thurman).
When the youngest was at an age that she felt comfortable returning to work, she decided to put her energy toward Tibet House. Years later, the couple acquired the estate on which Menla Mountain Retreat Center now exists, in what she describes as a "series of magical and amazing circumstances." The previous owner was a philanthropist who planned to create a healing center for late-stage cancer patients, but it was too much for her to maintain. "She heard we wanted to have a healing center under the auspice of Tibetan healing arts, so she gave it to Tibet House as a donation. It was like winning the lottery without buying a ticket," Thurman says.
The estate—which consists of 17 buildings on 320 acres—was mid-renovation when they took over. Thurman rolled up her sleeves and took on the role of head contractor, in charge of remodeling and expanding on the center's offerings. "My husband and I built our own house when we first moved to Woodstock, so on a shoestring budget I've been overseeing the renovations and construction," she explains. The most recent addition—which she says is just about finished—is a health spa that provides treatments from both Eastern and Western healing arts.
Thurman says that being involved with the development of both Menla and Tibet House has been a fulfilling experience. "I enjoy the creative aspect, the challenge of doing things I've never done before and seeing how everything grows," she says. "And, it's also nice being a volunteer because you can set your own hours; you can work very hard but then choose when to get away for a little while. But I enjoy it especially because what we're doing is positive and useful for others. That's what I love most about my work."