AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
KATHMANDU: The gates of one of Nepal's top private schools swing open and 20 children who hope to be the doctors, lawyers and scientists of tomorrow spill out into a smart Kathmandu suburb.
But while their classmates come from the country's wealthiest elite, these children were rescued seven years ago, dirty and sick, from a cowshed on the edge of the capital.
"I want to be a pilot when I leave school. I'd like to study science at university, maybe in France," says Rita Bhandari, 14, who is in the top two percent of her year group at the prestigious Gyanodaya Bal Batika School.
Like her 19 friends, Rita was handed to traffickers in impoverished western Nepal by her family in the hope of giving her a life away from the brutal civil war then sweeping through the countryside.
The children's journey from the remote district of Humla saw them end up on the unforgiving streets of Kathmandu, where children are sold as sex slaves or forced into back-breaking labour in brick factories and mills.
Their salvation came when they were discovered by Irish businessman Gene Lane-Spollen and his wife, Maura, who were visiting Nepal and heard about a group of children living in a cattle shed.
"It was a cold March day and there was no sign of the children because it was dark," said retired Coca-Cola executive, Gene, 64, who is based with his wife in France.
"We went upstairs on a ladder and there was no light, no windows upstairs at all. When your eyes got used to the dark you could see something and then we realised the barn was full of kids.
"There was one big string across the room with all the clothes chucked over it and there was nothing else -- not even any straw on the floor."
Gene and Maura took all 20 children -- who were then aged between three and nine -- and set up a charity to house and educate them, enrolling the group in a local school to teach them to read and speak English and Nepali rather than their tribal language.
"Over the course of the next couple of years we found the children were developing a real sense of ambition or competitiveness among themselves, even though they lived as a big family," Gene said.
The couple return frequently to monitor the pupils' progress after appointing carers to instill a regime of study and discipline that has seen the youngsters catching and then even overtaking their more affluent classmates.
Rita's success is all the more remarkable given her start in life, losing her father in the 1996-2006 Maoist civil war and having to leave her mother and younger brother and sister behind when she was sent to Kathmandu.
"Gene is like our godfather," she told AFP. "He changed my life."
Most of the students have never been back to Humla and they get to ring home just once every other month, but many talk about returning one day.
"I will go back to my village and I will try to develop it. I want to help other people by establishing a school," said Basanta Budhathoki, 15.
Chand Rai, who runs the home with his wife Menuka, says he feels "blessed" to be the group's surrogate father.
"My family is here. It's not work, it's living here with them," he said.
Rai said the children were not treated differently by their more affluent classmates at school as they have earned respect by being good at sport and lessons.
But he admitted problems occasionally arise when they see their richer friends enjoying cinema trips and other privileges.
The children rise at 6:00 am for prayers before their chores, and study for an hour before school. They are allowed an hour to unwind after classes but then it's back to the books.
"If there is an exam the senior boys will study until 10:00pm or 11:00pm," said Rai.
It is the strict routine which sets the home apart from other care centres in Kathmandu, where children are left to their own devices and often end up back on the streets.
But it is not cheap: accommodation and schooling costs for the group costs around 2.8 million rupees ($35,000) a year, with Gene and Maura covering most of the expense and donors making up the rest.
"If they have good food, good medicine, good management and a good school, there's nothing to stop them," said Gene. "They can be whatever they want."