For Ann Ayrault, an early trekking adventure in Nepal led to a lifelong affinity for the people and culture of that region.
The Minneapolis resident went on to help thousands of Tibetans build a new life in Minnesota, starting in the early 1990s when they first began arriving in large numbers.
Ayrault died Sunday at her Minneapolis home at age 64, after a recurrence of lymphoma.
In her final days, many local Tibetans flocked to her bedside, and they held a special prayer service for her last Friday, said Namgyal Dorjee, president of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota -- a community hub that Ayrault helped start.
"From the very beginning, she was involved in our community," he said. "Through the years, she helped all the newcomers with the basic needs -- looking for jobs, grocery shopping, all this, she helped them out."
In 1992, the Twin Cities was one of seven U.S. cities chosen by Tibetan officials for the Tibetan Resettlement Project. About 150 came to live in Minnesota, and Ayrault was one of the sponsors, Dorjee said.
She found host families for the new arrivals and she started and edited a Tibetan community newsletter called "Yakkety-Yak." She was elected executive director of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, serving on a volunteer basis before stepping down. She believed that the organization should be run by Tibetans, her family said.
It was on a trip to Nepal in 1982 that Ayrault first encountered Tibetan people and became enchanted with the land, the people and the culture, said her husband, Steven Girshick.
Added Ayrault's stepdaughter, Ahna Girshick: "There was something about the Tibetan culture that was really magical to her."
Born in New York City, Ayrault graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois with a degree in sociology. She moved to the Chicago area, where she worked as a social worker before moving to Minneapolis in the late 1970s. A few years later, she and a friend went trekking in Nepal.
Ayrault was also passionate about France and was learning French with her husband. For a number of years, she also tutored Somali immigrants.
No matter what she was doing, she was driven by a genuine desire to assist others, Steven Girshick said. "She just really cared about people, about helping people," he said.
In addition to her husband and stepdaughter, Ayrault is survived by another stepdaughter, Sahra Bhimji, of Edinburgh, Scotland; a sister, Tina Pearo, of Erie, Pa.; and a brother, Guy Ayrault of Vail, Colo. A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 23 at First Unitarian Society, 900 Mount Curve Av., Minneapolis.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488