“In the blink of an eye we can all make a difference,” says CNN’s 2015 Hero of the Year Maggie Doyne, the founder of BlinkNow Foundation, a not-for-profit trust based in Nepal that nurtures orphaned and less privileged children with love and education.
Doyne was selected as the CNN Hero of the Year after an online vote by the channel’s audience. At the ceremony held in New York City on December 6, Doyne was overcome with emotion as she received the award. “Had someone told me at 18 that by 28 I would be a mother to 50 children, I would have told them you are crazy,” she said at the ceremony.
Doyne was also recognised for developing a centre to empower the women of Surkhet district in Nepal through job training and education as part of BlinkNow Foundation’s work.
Doyne received $100,000 (Dh367,295) in addition to the $10,000 each person who made it to the list of Top Ten CNN Heroes gets.
“I want my project to be a model for what other people can do around the world,” Doyne said. “I was just one girl who helped another girl in a country devastated by poverty and war.”
But her story is far less simple than that. It goes back a decade, when Doyne was just another 18-year-old in Mendham, New Jersey, the United States. She was keen on attending college but was not sure about the course to pursue. “It seemed irresponsible for me to take on that cost without a formal plan,” she said.
At that time, LeapNow’s LeapYear Program (a full academic year of experience, adventure and reflection designed to support the growth of the whole person) that her elder sister Kate had joined came to mind. “She did a gap year and travelled through South America,” Doyne said. “I wanted to take a similar trip and do service work throughout the world.”
Spurring her on was Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Eat Pray Love”. “I really wanted to find myself.”
In 2005, Doyne boarded an aircraft to see the world. Under LeapNow’s programme, she visited four countries. At the end of the year, she got a volunteer position in a school in northeast India. This school served refugee children. Many were orphans who had fled Nepal following the civil war. Until then, Doyne did not know about the existence of Nepal.
Curious about the Himalayan nation, she packed her bags again. Joining her on this trip was Sunita, a young Nepalese girl, who had left her village in 2003. After a two-day bus journey and a three-day trek through the Himalayas, Doyne reached Nepal. She was unprepared for the ravages of the civil war and widespread poverty. The stark reality hit her when she saw a little girl saddled with a huge sack of goods that she had carry every day to earn a living.
Then, while walking around, Doyne also noticed a little girl sitting by the river and breaking stones into small pieces, which were sold later. The money she earned augmented her family income. This was how Doyne met six-year-old Hima.
“Despite the hard work, Hima never failed to greet me with a smile every morning,” said Doyne. “I had not seen such extreme levels of poverty as I saw in Nepal. I was shocked to see how the lives of orphaned children were different from mine. Yet they all lived with hope. That touched me. I realised that there was something for me to do.”
What if I started with Hima; how would her life change if she was educated, Doyne wondered. That was a life-changing moment for Doyne as well, and Hima was the catalyst. She enrolled Hima in a school.
On meeting village heads and parents, Doyne realised that everyone wanted their children to be educated but just could not afford it. She sponsored the education of five more children.
When the number of children she put in school rose to 10, Doyne realised that her funds were running out. She wrote to her parents in New Jersey to transfer her savings of $5,000, built through babysitting since the time she was 12.
“It was a long and hard conversation when I first told my parents,” Doyne said, “but in the end, they listened and were supportive. They’ve had their moments of worry and concern but finally they have rallied behind BlinkNow. All my family members have visited me. My dad is actually living here now.”
With her savings, Doyne purchased land in Surkhet. Kopila Valley Children’s Home was built here. Kopila in Nepalese means bud.
“As we like to say around here, Kopila Valley is a place where children bloom,” added Doyne.
Doyne included the local Nepalese community in her new endeavour. Assisting her was Top Bahadur Malla, a Nepalese who had been orphaned at a young age. They had met at the refugee camp in India. Malla has been an integral part of the organisation and has helped to mobilise the community since the beginning.
“I’m really lucky that the Nepalese community welcomed me with patience while I learnt the culture and language,” says Doyne, who received the Forbes Award for Excellence in Education in 2013. “As people began to see the work we were doing, the community embraced us even more. It was really amazing. One of the reasons why the project has been successful is because it’s been a community effort. It’s never been just me on my own.”
From a one-storey building in 2007, Kopila Valley Home has grown to a four-storey building today. It’s abuzz with activity with 50 children — from toddlers to teenagers.
What makes this home unique is the children’s involvement in daily activities such as cleaning, cooking, washing and babysitting younger ones. Older children cook the Friday dinner and Saturday breakfast. Working in groups, they plan the menu, purchase ingredients and then prepare it.
This sharing of responsibility in the daily management of the home not only keeps the children off TV, it also makes them self-reliant. As for the housekeeping and cooking staff, they get a much-wanted break.
And, at sundown, this large family gets together for “satsang”. As their legal guardian, Doyne can make medical and legal decisions on their behalf.
In 2010 Kopila Valley Children’s School was set up.
Started initially as a primary school and constructed with locally available bamboo, it now boasts 350 students and has grown to become one of the top-ranked schools in the country. All are first generation learners. Last July the first batch of 20 students from the school passed the 10th grade (School Leaving Certificate Examination).
The BlinkNow Futures Scholarship has motivated some of them to pursue further studies. Nisha, 16, is studying science and aspires to become an oncologist while Chetan, 17, hopes to someday relieve his mother of the family responsibility.
With such a large family on board, health management is also a concern. The Kopila Valley Health Clinic was thus set up in 2011. Managed by a team of doctors and nurses, it serves the neighbourhood community too.
Under BlinkNow Foundation, Surkhet’s first Mental Health and Counselling centre opened in 2013. It reaches out to women and children. The same year, Doyne and her team opened the Kopila Valley Women’s Centre to offer vocational training such as sewing, weaving, making handicrafts and entrepreneurship to women.
The CNN award money will be utilised for a new campus. “It will replace the existing one and will be sustainable and earthquake proof. I hope it will serve as a model for other schools in the region and around the world,” Doyne said.
Like every journey of self-discovery, Doyne faced challenges. There have been days when this single “mother” as if she wanted to quit. “It is hard work and sometimes sad. If I hadn’t been working with children, I definitely could have quit. I didn’t because I wanted to always be a constant for them, someone they could always trust and depend on.”
Amid all the joyous times, there have been moments of sorrow, too. In 2014, two-month-old Ravi was brought to the home wrapped in rags. His mother had died during childbirth. Barely conscious, his body limp, and a distended stomach, Ravi was vomiting and had diarrhoea too.
Doyne took him in and after treatment at a local hospital, Ravi’s condition improved. He soon grew to be a chubby boy, slowly learning to walk and winning hearts with his baby talk and infectious grin. But on December 29, Ravi died.
“Ravi and I were made for each other,” Doyne wrote in her blog, grieving for the one she called her little child.
Ravi’s sister, six-year-old Pabitra, also lives at Kopila Valley Home. The home’s environment transformed this glum child into a smiling girl who found joy in dancing.
“At Kopila Valley each child has a unique and inspiring story,” said Doyne, who was honoured by the Dalai Lama as an Unsung Hero of Compassion in 2014.
It was a proud moment for Doyne when 22 teenagers took up summer jobs in 2014. While the boys worked as waiters in restaurants or assisted with the construction work of the new school, the girls worked at a daycare centre or helped at an NGO that BlinkNow Foundation was associated with.
In her blog, Doyne recalls with joy staying up until11 every night and listening to one of her boys, Naveen Tiwari, share the stories of his day’s work at a hotel. And then there’s Padam, another teenager, who wanted to quit his summer job. Doyne wanted him to give it a try for two weeks. “We started yelling at each other and then I screamed, ‘Get in the car, you’re going,” she writes in her blog.
“The children have changed my life,” says Doyne, who can sometimes be seen combing lice out of her children’s hair, in an e-mail. “Right now, I am focused on my 50 children.”
“I take my job very seriously. Spending quality time with them is the key. I know they will eventually grow up and that’s why I want to cherish these moments while we are all here together in the same home. We all have something special to give to the world. You don’t have to move 8,000 miles away or go to Nepal to do something,” Doyne said.
Meanwhile, Hima, is now in the 6th grade at Kopila Valley School. She still lives with her mother and brother in Surkhet. Her mother works at the Kopila Valley’s Women’s Centre and runs a cookie business that Hima loves to help with.
“We can change the things we don’t like in the world anywhere, we can change the world,” says Doyne.
To quote American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein: “Being a mother is an attitude, not a biological relation.”
Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.