Please explain what brought you to Nepal.
My senior year of high school I was like any other soccer-playing-college-bound-New-Jersey-girl: consumed with SAT scores, grades, college applications, and my football star boyfriend. To say I was obsessed with getting into the perfect college would be, well, an understatement. I’ll never forget the morning—after having been up all night cramming for an exam—that I stumbled downstairs in my pajamas, and announced to my parents my wish to take a year off. Little did I know how much this one singular decision would mean to my future.
So as my classmates headed off to college, my parents dropped me off at Newark Airport—just me and my backpack on my first solo trip away from home. As nervous as I was, (and I was!), there was something really liberating about this first journey. I had no idea where the road ahead would lead. I felt like there was something inside me, something deeper, something just waiting to be unleashed.
I met up with 12 other students as part of a program called LeapNow that takes groups of students around the world doing service, ecological and cultural projects. We worked with a Fijian tribal village rebuilding their deteriorating sea wall, learned to meditate at a Buddhist monastery, took an outdoor leadership and survival course in the wilderness, worked with native Maori tribes to restore their stream and spent time with aborigines in the outback. We even went scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. By the time I got back to the U.S. I had learned the ins and outs of traveling, and for my second semester (of my gap year), I decided to do an independent internship in an orphanage in northeastern India. What started out as a three-month internship, unraveled into a full year. While I was in the orphanage in India, I started meeting Nepalese refugees, mostly children who had fled the country during the Maoist Insurgency. I decided to go to Nepal to see the aftermath of the war with my own eyes. Before I knew it, I was trekking through the Himalayas and passing through some of the most poverty stricken villages in the region. I was astounded by the conditions, burned temples, ransacked homes and destroyed schools. I fell in love with the bright eyes and beautiful smiles of the children but was shocked to see many of them struggling to survive without their most basic needs: A safe home, food, clothing and the chance to go to school.
I started following the news and events, speaking with NGOs, (non-government affiliated organizations) peace organizations, government officials and resident villagers in the border region of Nepal and discovered that one of the biggest issues in the country, was the lack of facilities for the country’s misplaced children; ex-child soldiers, orphans, and young girls sold into sex-trafficking. I remembered that moment where I called up my parents and literally asked them to wire over my babysitting money in my savings account. With my life savings, I bought my first piece of land for $5,000 in August of 2006.
How did you cultivate connections in Nepal?
In the small, rural community (called Surkhet) where I had bought the land, I met a core group of incredible Nepalese locals also dedicated to finding solutions for the placement, rehabilitation, and reintegration of Nepalese children into society. Through my work at the first orphanage (in India), I had also made some wonderful connections with like-minded Nepali people. After much research and discussion I formed a Nepali board of directors and registered my new organization, Kopila Valley Children’s Project, with the Nepalese Government. In the Nepali language, Kopila means bud, the idea of the name being that if reared in a nurturing and loving environment, the children would blossom from buds to flowers.
Was it your idea to build the Kopila Valley Children’s Home?
Yes. I had, I guess what you’d call, an epiphany, as I was trekking through these villages stumbling upon so many kids that needed a home and just really basic things like clean water, and food, and schooling. I remember this one meeting I had with a principal. I was just like “so why do you think there are just so many kids out of school?” He told me that in Nepal, education isn’t free. Children have to pay an admission fee; they have to buy a uniform and their books. “Alright well how much do all of these things cost?” I thought to myself. That’s when I started to do the math… admission fee; $5, uniform $7, books $8. I decided that with such little effort, I could really make a difference.
How did you get funding for the home?
After I bought the land and registered as an official NGO, I returned home in the spring of 2007 to raise awareness and funds for the project. In addition to babysitting, pet-sitting, and even plant sitting 24/7, I began to talk to everyone I knew (and people I didn’t know too!), about my project and my plans and my dream for the land and vision for the children…I made a really detailed budget and knew my numbers like the back of my hand. When I was in Nepal I realized that the average admission fee to enroll a child into primary school was $5. That was less than what I would spend at Starbucks! I wanted to make the idea of donating really simple and tangible for people. I remember talking to a girl scout troop of 3rd graders and them just being so blown away when I told them that THEY could actually enroll and child into school for less than $5! One girl even blurted out “hey that’s less than a webkinz!!” When I was collecting money to build the home I broke things down into smaller increments that people could really grasp and understand. Families could buy a bed with warm blankets, and pillows and mosquito netting for $50, or a chicken that would provide our children with fresh nutritious eggs for $10. It made donators feel really good to know, that with such little efforts, they could really make a difference for our home and the everyday lives of our kids. It is interesting to note that up until then, I had always been kind of afraid of money. Through this process I’ve realized that when you have a clear vision, a goal and dreams- that money and all the rest of that other complicated stuff really just falls into place. I started going into schools and talking to kids in classrooms and assemblies. Before I knew it, kids in my community were taking on projects of their own. A local Girl Scout troop collected enough hats and mittens for children in an entire village for me to take back with me! The middle school that I went to hosted a talent show and donated the profits to my project. I was amazed at how my community really came and rallied to support me.
What exactly is the local community in Nepal? What kind of role did the community play in helping you do this?
The home is located in a small trading-post city at the foothills of the Himalayas. Most of the people in our village work as subsistence farmers or as laborers. When I was creating the home I wanted it to be built FOR and BY the local community. So far, 230 members from the community have taken part in its’ construction. This included architects, masons, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and many local women who carried the materials and worked to build the actual house itself. I drew up the plan for the house with a Nepali architect, and designed it myself. There were A LOT of decisions involved… everything from the colors of the walls to where the septic tank would go, to the measurements of the windows. I also tried to make the house as environmentally sustainable as possible. I remember one day this past January, I was stressed because I had no idea what I wanted to paint the outside of the house! I had like 50 different sample painted on the wall. I invited all the neighbors and villagers over and everyone voted on the color they liked the best. We all agreed and started painting the next day.
I really wanted to be sure that this wasn’t about ME a foreigner coming in and telling these people what was best for them! I listened. By this time I had learned Nepali, knocking down the language barrier. I really talked to people. I wanted to hear what the local people themselves saw as the needs in their community. I made a lot of friends and learned A LOT from the people of my village.
Did you help with physical construction of the home?
Yes! A lot of days the kids and I worked right alongside the laborers carrying cement and bricks! It became really fun for all of us. The kids and the whole community/village now takes ownership and feels proud of the home we all worked to build together.
How do children get accepted into the home? Is there an application?
There are a lot of different guidelines that I follow when it comes to accepting kids into the home. I really have to look at each individual child, their story and where they come from. I go to their villages, take interviews, get documentation… etc. I only accept parentless children or kids that have been victims of serious abuse. Kids who I accept into Kopila Valley have no family, no home, are not enrolled in school, and have no means of support. I try to choose the children who I think will have a really hard time surviving without our home. There are so SO many kids that fit this profile. For every child that I take or enroll into school there are at least 100 others that I have to say no to. That’s the hard part. (See: THE OTHER GIRL) I also work with the local government and police who sometimes refer me to children. It can be really hard to get documentation on a lot of the kids. None of them know their birthdays or have birth records. I know one little boy who didn’t even know his last name. It takes a full investigation to get to the bottom of some of their stories. Every day is different from the next. I try to find the best most sustainable solutions for the local people in the community. Some children are on the streets and are in desperate need of a home, others are working to feed their families and they don’t have the time or the money to go to school, others need medical care or an urgent operation.
How did you find the children?
There are an estimated 45,000 orphan children in Nepal. I find them everywhere and sometimes they find me. Read the entries from my blog, about two of the children, Karma, and Bhukta, and how I found them.
How did you get land?
I chose this great piece of land on the outskirts of a beautiful village. It was fertile and had access to pure glacial water. It was in a safe quiet neighborhood in walking distance to a wonderful school. Buying the land was really the first big move I ever made. I just knew it was right so I bought it and eventually put it in the name of our organization. (There is a whole legal process.)
What is the Village Outreach Program? Do you enroll children into school? Our Village Outreach Program is for children who are working as child laborers, or farmers and don’t have the opportunity or the money to go to school. We offer them scholarships, tutoring, and sometimes bicycles to get to school. Improve schools in remote areas- Making repairs, giving desks and benches, and giving scholarships. We are working with one particular school now and hope to focus on more of this in the future.
Is the BlinkNow Foundation a 501c3 non-profit?
Yes, we are an official 501c3. What a learning experience! The BlinkNow Foundation is the U.S. side of Kopila Valley Children’s Home and there’s a second U.S. board of directors.
I created The BlinkNow Foundation, as a separate entity than Kopila Valley, as a vehicle to share my ideas with other young people, especially children in the U.S. I believe that in the blink of an eye, we can all make a difference.
Is this your full-time job now? Yes. I live in Nepal full-time with breaks in the US, fundraising, meeting with my board of directors, and taking care of other business for both the children, and BlinkNow. I also speak to kids, teens, and adults about my project.
I’ve met some of the most AMAZING young people through my journey, many of which have guided and supported me. After visiting schools in my hometown and beyond, I am now more certain than ever that young people DO CARE! We want to change things. Sometimes it’s just hard to know how to help and what to do. When telling my story it’s really important for me to stress that this has just been my path, but that change and service can come in all different forms, even in just our everyday interactions with each other. I created The BlinkNow Foundation to share my ideas with other young people, especially children in the U.S. I believe that in the blink of an eye, we can all make a difference. My hope is that my blog and the BlinkNow site, keeps young people connected with my story and the everyday realities of the world.
What are your future plans?
One of my dreams is to create safe homes and communities for children all over the world in need of refuge. I have come so far from that girl, with the backpack, but most of all, now more than ever, I know that anything is possible. My heart is full and the future is exciting. There is so much, still, to do.