When Maggie Doyne first arrived in Nepal in 2006, a 13-year civil war was coming to an end. She hadn’t planned to be there – fresh on the heels of her high school graduation, she was a teenager on a gap year that allowed her to travel and visit children’s projects and orphanages around the world. Work in Africa had fallen through so she made her way to the South Asian country by way of India, where she met Top Malla, a Nepali working at a children’s home serving refugees. She travelled to his homeland a year later to see how she could help people in the midwestern region, where the civil war had sprouted. Doyne never left.
In 2007, she met a 6-year-old named Hima, who was breaking stones to sell in a dry riverbed of the Himalayas and was moved to help the girl receive schooling. Doyne met other children who needed her help, too. At 19, using the $5,000 saved from babysitting gigs, she purchased land in Surkhet, Nepal, to build them a home. With Malla, Doyne founded nonprofit foundation BlinkNow, and with help from the Nepalase local community, the Kopila Valley Children’s Home was born. The original single-level building is now four-stories high: a colorful, communal living space that’s home to over 50 children, ages one through 19. A school for nearly 400 students followed, then a health clinic and a women’s center –90 percent staffed by Nepali people, many of whom were orphans themselves. It’s an aid model that saw success through slow, organic growth and support from the people of Nepal, who helped co-founders Doyne and Malla establish roots to help lift children out of poverty and violence.
Ten years later, on the front porch of her first-ever apartment, in Chatham, New Jersey, 29-year-old Maggie Doyne is barefoot, splitting a bag of French fries with friends who have come to help her move in. “I’ve been living out of a Patagonia bag for a long time,” she said. Back west to celebrate being named CNN’s 2015 Hero of the Year, Doyne is also visiting to establish the apartment as a base for the small BlinkNow team she’s assembled stateside. It will double as a safe space for her kids when they visit from Nepal, like the two girls currently on scholarship with a family in Mendham, her supportive hometown.
Doyne has adopted over fifty Nepali children – orphans, aside from a very few with incarcerated or severely mentally ill parents. Her youngest, 18-month-old Ravi, starved for two months in the Himalayan village where he was born before Doyne became his guardian. She’s worked tirelessly to bring him back to health. “He’s the love of my life,” she said, “but it was a rocky road for a while.” Now with Ravi at a healthy weight, Doyne can continue to spend eight to ten months a year in Nepal, where she’s helped create a safe home for her family.
“I hate orphanages,” Doyne said. “A child in an orphanage is more likely to be abused or contract a deadly illness than outside, surviving on their own on the streets.” At Kopila Valley Children’s Home, Doyne lives with the children, who have chores, help with meals, and have family quiet time. The children at her school have the chance to learn, play in soccer tournaments, and plan impactful projects, like the recently-completed community recycling program they helped implement and the home they helped rebuild for an earthquake survivor. “And also, just being kids,” she said. The older children are studying to be nurses, taking carpentry classes and hope to become engineers, scientists, farmers, and journalists.
Women in the World talked to Maggie Doyne about her unusual path to motherhood, a decade of service, and how the $100,000 grant prize from CNN will impact the future for her kids and help sustainably build a second school campus for Kopila Valley.
Women in the World: You first started this work in Nepal at 19, now you’re 29. This decade-long career just happened upon you – how does that feel?
Maggie Doyne: I’ve been in it for ten years and I get to help other people who want to do this kind of work. So I’ve gotten on with orphanages in Haiti, and orphanages in Rwanda, and children’s projects in Uganda and Sri Lanka. I get to help and share [and] my goal is to make this open source and help in whatever ways I can. I’m proud of myself – I can’t not be. But what makes this special over the years is that this has been a community movement, it’s not a personal journey anymore about a girl who ends up in northeast India and then Nepal. It’s turned into a community that’s built itself out of poverty and a little oasis-haven of what I think the world could look like, even in violent, post-civil war, rural Nepal.
I’m also a mom watching my kids grow up. I took in 5 and 6 year olds who are 15 and 16 now, and I’m watching them turn into people. My twenties were really different, obviously – even my late teen years were in that part of the world. The point in me sharing my story is [to show] that I’m normal through and through and if I can do this – find joyful, meaningful work that I love, and it’s trying to make the world better, I hope that the story gets out there. Our generation has to do it. We need to be the generation that stops this.
If there’s 100 million orphaned children in the world, there’s a consequence to that. If we’re raising children without having their most human basic needs and rights met, that translates ten and 20 years later to really serious economic instability, war, violence. Everything that we’re seeing now on the news – I guarantee you, every single one of those kids didn’t have enough love, or food, or an education.
WITW: Or their parents were killed by war, or instability.
MD: It has to stop somewhere. We have everything that we need to make the world better – we have the technology now. You can’t turn on the news and not know what’s going on in the world because somebody, somewhere, is gonna snap it. When that woman is sexually assaulted, we can start speaking up and say, “No, this is unacceptable.” It looked like that for the past two hundred years for women, but it’s not going to look like that anymore because our generation is not okay with it.
WITW: When you first arrived, the Nepalese Civil War was ending. Tell us about the current state of Nepal for women and children today.
MD: It [took] exactly 10 years to write the constitution. There [have been] strikes, political and civil unrest, disputes, and six or eight different prime ministers. Everyone’s vying for power. We’re the world’s youngest republic, but it’s struggle city. Real serious poverty and very little economic-political stability in the country.
The constitution was just drafted after getting put off, and off, and off again. It’s an exciting time in that sense, but in another sense, we just came out of two devastating earthquakes, the GEP’s the lowest it’s ever been—I think it’s in the bottom-five poorest countries in the world. [Nepal]’s landlocked, so it’s the most remote food deficit region in the world. It’s a country that lives off of subsistence farming with really high unemployment. As the constitution passed, there’s a Madhesi population, which is a zone in the country where there are some Nepalis and some Indians. It’s an open border. The Madhesi population feels underrepresented in the Nepali constitution. So [Narendra] Modi, who is the prime minister of India, got really mad about the constitution and at [Nepal’s] government and demanded that it be changed to favor the Indian population. Dirty political business. The Nepali government is like, ‘Fine, we don’t need you’, and they put up an unofficial political blockade. To the north, you have Tibet, which was taken over by China. Then, to the south – the only way into the country – you have India, which is now closed off. There’s very little in-country manufacturing in Nepal – blankets, winter jackets for the freezing-cold part of the season, medicine and most importantly, fuel, to run ambulances, school buses, and businesses. We cook with propane tanks, so no one can cook. UNICEF just released a statement saying that 3 million children are highly at risk for death, disease and hunger. The international community and the news aren’t speaking up about it because they’re afraid of China to the north and India to the south, and those are superpowers. Nobody has anything to gain in Nepal – it’s a teeny-tiny country with 28 million people. It’s a disaster.
My children are cooking with pinecones. We have hundreds of thousands of people sleeping in tents, post-earthquake, coming out of a huge tragedy, and now nothing can happen. And in Nepal, you don’t have power for 12 to 16 hours a day, even in the bigger cities, because of load shedding.
WITW: In so many of the stories that have been written about you – the girl on this personal journey, as you said – also include Hima, the poor girl you met on your travels and the first you took under your wing. How has access to education changed her life?
MD: It’s hard to say, because raising kids is slow. Change is slow, and people think sometimes with aid that there’s a quick solution. Hima’s no longer breaking rocks on that dry riverbed. She’s no longer a child laborer. I think statistically, if we look at girls who are enrolled into school, they are married later, they have fewer children, they’re less likely to contract HIV. But Hima’s just a normal seventh grader! She’s happy, she comes to school every day. She has some learning difficulties, just like any other kid, especially one that was enrolled a little bit later and has had a tough home life. She plays soccer and she loves to dance. That whole dry riverbed of kids that used to be breaking rocks is no longer there. It’s just a riverbed. That was always my dream.
That was the thing [that made me think], “I can’t go back.” Knowing what I know and seeing what I saw.
WITW: When you transition from Nepal to the United States, and an affluent New Jersey community, what are the most jarring changes?
MD: People always ask, how do you go from this remote other planet – it’s like another planet, that’s the best way to describe it – to here, suburban New Jersey, or New York City. I used to really struggle with it, like, it doesn’t make sense. I won the birth lottery, how are these little sisters of mine over in Nepal at risk without food or warm clothes? I’ve come to better terms with it because I have to go back and forth a lot, and I’ve realized that the only reason that makes sense that we were given all this – these rights that we have, the education we were given, which [for me] was really just a public school education, the safety net, the security and freedom to choose who I want to marry, when I want to marry and not be sold for money – the reason is that we have to give it back to others. I gave up trying to compare one world or the other world.
In Nepal, I’m grateful that my kids have so much joy, and that they have their marbles that they play and their kites that they fly and their music. When I’m here, I’m grateful for the fact that the sewer is underground, that the light comes on whenever I want it, and that I get a hot shower. When I made that switch and stopped comparing and feeling guilty, that’s when I started feeling like, “I am who I am, I am where I am.” That switch was transformative for me.
WITW: Other activists talk about guilt and shame when discussing the transition between “worlds.” How can that guilt and shame limit people?
MD: Guilt and feeling bad for the kids isn’t going to change things. The only thing that will change it is action. I spend every day of my life taking action, having conversations with people that will really wake them up because people still don’t have a clue. I’m a do-er now. The moments where I catch myself feeling sad, I think, “what are we going to do to change this?” That’s how we got a women’s center. I got sick and tired of women coming to me who were beaten, their skulls were cracked open from their husband and they didn’t have food for their kids.
WITW: Women obviously have unique needs, but why did you feel the center was a vital space?
MD: The whole process of creating BlinkNow has been one step at a time — organic and slow. When the kids were sick all the time, I said, “we need a clinic and a prevention plan.” When they came to school hungry and would be begging on the streets for food, we created a nutrition plan. When the women and the caregivers of my children were really upset and the student’s home lives were so bad, we created a women’s center. It’s an evolutionary process where you see a problem and work with the local community to find a solution. We’re not just a school, we’re not just a home. The kids in my home needed a really good school to go to, so we built one.
When you look at the problems in our world, they are really complicated. There’s no quick fix, so you really have to attack from all angles so the child has everything that they need.
WITW: BlinkNow, at its core, is made possible by the Nepalese community that supported you. Was there ever any push back?
MD: No. In the beginning, when I became so passionate about this, I read every single book on aid and development and the first thing I learned was that [the organization] had to work with or without me and it had to be their idea. It was our idea, but everything that we created from day one was with a local board, local village elders, with local government involved. [With] my partner, Top [Malla], who is co-director and co-founder, we thought through everything thoroughly. We started so small, we were just a little seedling trying to do what we could. We never took that next step unless we were sure it could be sustained in Nepali culture and community. There have been challenges, but it’s always been our place with their solutions that I helped with a little bit.
WITW: In photos of your 70-person team online, everyone is smiling and looks genuinely happy to be there. Why was an all-Nepali staff important in the school setting?
MD: That’s Nepali people, first of all! I was raising children and I wanted my children to see amazing, inspiring women and farmers and beekeepers and nurses and our neighbors around the house. I wanted them to be raised in their culture, in their community. I didn’t want them to see just white faces, I wanted them to see people who are [like] them. A lot of my staff were orphaned when they were little. The kids call them “auntie” and “uncle” and everyone has a role, a place. Everyone works together.
WITW: That sounds idyllic.
MD: The reason that all of the kids are smiling is because that’s the reality of how it is. When you come to our project, you see abject poverty, but you can’t take away the joke. You can’t take the love out — they do have so little, but there’s a lot that Nepal has to offer culturally and religiously. I didn’t want to touch that. Let’s keep the good and supplement where we can. I never wanted to go in and build an American school. I don’t think we’re necessarily doing it right here, either. Nepal has so many good things and the west has so many good things, but there are problems with each. I wanted to created a fusion: the best of both worlds. My team has ownership over it. It’s there. They make the decisions — we do, as a family — and that’s why it works. Because it’s their home and they treat it like it’s their home.
WITW: And on the BlinkNow fellowship page, you stress how radically different daily life in Kopila may be for someone coming from a different, more privileged background.
MD: That’s to scare people away. We want to attract people to our program who know what they’re getting into, long-term. We’re very selective because we’re just looking for a few positions. We paint a real picture of what it looks like: it is hard, it is challenging, there will be bugs. Believe it or not, we have had people come and struggle with the bugs. We want to curate a team that is culturally conscious. We’re there to respect their culture, we’re not there to help them. If anything, we’re getting knowledge and beauty from them. We paint a real picture so people know.
I’ll never up and move to another country. It’ll take me a whole lifetime and then some to do this work. I want to spread the mission and the vision to spread and have other people to do what their thing is. This is just mine.
WITW: For you, who was a child herself when this all started, the personal, political and career aspects of the world are happening at once. Does your philosophy on parenting directly affect your philosophy on education and your worldview?
MD: Totally! I had a therapist ask me, “Where are your life-work boundaries, Maggie?” [laughs] Everyone has these boundaries and for me, in my life, there probably won’t be many. My kids are also my work and my life is also my passion. My work is my passion and my family, in this case, and the people I love more than anything in the world. It’s a blessing to live like that. It’s never “work” or “not work.” It’s just life.
Our philosophy is community, return to the earth and the lost art of living. Back to taking care of each other, kindness, giving kids a safe place to be, play, and grow. We cook meals together. It’s a safe, loving place to be every day, and we do really well. We’re the top-performing school.
WITW: Since you’ve opened the home and school, have any of the parents who orphaned their children ever come to find them?
MD: There was one case where the mother had been trafficked to Saudi Arabia and she came back after seven years. Imagine, for my poor kids… it was like seeing a ghost. And she looked just like them. She came back from Saudi Arabia, she was rescued. We’ve worked it out. [All] my kids have two moms – Ravi, who lost his mom at ten days old, she’s still his mommy. She gave birth to him. It’s a hard position to be in, raising someone else’s child and they slowly become your own. It can feel a little selfish. My relationship with each of the kids is different — I’ve had a 10-month-old come in, he only considers me his mom, and I’ve had kids that have come in at 12 and 13 and remember their parents before they died. We don’t overthink it. They’re all on the same boat. My kids are kind of the privileged kids. They have a loving family, they have each other.
WITW: Two of your girls organized a 5K – She’s the First – and are now participating in an exchange program here in New Jersey. Are they the first BlinkNow kids to come to the United States?
MD: I’ve had others. My oldest, my first kid, Nisha, came a few years back. I’ve had Ravi come, and a little girl come for a medical surgery.
WITW: What’s the experience been like for Jharana BC and Sirjana Singh, the girls who are in Mendham, New Jersey on scholarship?
MD: [It has introduced] them to this world, this life, that they had no idea about. My philosophy in starting the home is that they need to be [in Nepal], in their culture. But this was their idea, they did a leadership course and I just couldn’t refuse. They were invited and I was the one who had the discretion, but I couldn’t deny them the opportunity to travel. They’re so impressionable and this is a cool scholarship. It’s their decision if they want to go.
That being said, the first day in the country, I went upstairs and they were both in the shower, fully-clothed, under the hot shower turning it on and off because they’ve only showered in a cold spring, a public water tap, so they didn’t know how to take a shower or turn a light switch on.
WITW: Flipping that switch to see light must seem like magic.
MD: They’re taking it all in. What I’ve seen from my kids is that they’re so ready to go back at the end of it all. Everyone always says, “Don’t they just want to stay here forever?” and my kids are like, “No! We miss home!” It’s like going on a trip. At the end of the trip, you just miss home. My kids who have been here have been like, “Mom, we have a lot, too.” Isn’t it sad that people live in a big house and it’s so quiet? They’ve been able to see both now. When you see both, you can make your own conclusion.
WITW: What’s their idea of the United States?
MD: It’s a distant sort of thing that they hear about, but can’t even imagine what it’s like. I’m watching the co-director [Top Malla] come here for the first time and he asks about everything. “What’s a fire hydrant? What’s the roofing made out of?” The ATM machine, everything, is a different paradigm. They take it in with beginners’ eyes and try to conceptualize it.
WITW: What’s the next chapter? Does the $100,000 from CNN make new dreams possible?
MD: We’re building our expanded school, which is going to be the greatest school in the entire world! It’s bio-gas, rain-water harvest and solar paneled, all self-generating so it can just be in the Nepali village. Kids are gonna raise their animals and grow their own food and have more space, just to play. We want to build a safe house—that’s one of my dreams—where we [would] run a program where anyone could come in and report a rape or an assault or trafficking or child labor. A lot of the intense part of my job has been handling those cases. [It’d be] a place for a girl who has been trafficked, or who is labeled as “high risk,” or a woman and her family who are going through a hard time could come and be.
I want to do “age-out” very well. We have kids who are getting older and in our care, we just send kids out on their way when they are 18 but that’s actually a time in life when they need us more than ever — especially because they’ve been in a facility. It’s an injustice to just let them loose. So we’re working on a strong life-skills curriculum and adulthood program that will set them up for success and hopefully be modeled.
Every dollar goes as really long way. We’re in the process of trying to raise $1.6 million dollars, so [the CNN prize] will help us start chipping away at that goal. It will help us to continue to raise enthusiasm and awareness.
WITW: In ten years of serving children, especially girls, what have you learned about humanity?
MD: I’ve learned that to our core, whether you’re a child or an adult, we all just want to be loved and accepted. We want to do good. I really believe that.