Women

09.24.13

Forty Kids and Counting

The story of one young woman’s journey from New Jersey to Nepal—and how, along the way, she adopted 40 children, opened a school, and helped women empower their community.

Maggie Doyne looks tired. But you would too if you had 40 children.

And they are all late to bed tonight.

Doyne, 26, is the founder of the Kopila Valley Children’s Home and School in Nepal and creator of the BlinkNow Foundation. She has legal custody of the 40 children, who live full time in the home. An additional 340 kids are currently enrolled in the school. And in June she opened a women’s center at Kopila Valley.

I’m waiting for Maggie to appear on screen for our Skype chat. Five minutes pass, then 10, then 20. I start getting nervous. Finally her smiling face appears, and she says, “Sorry, my electricity just came back on!” Small beans at Kopila Valley.

Curious children keep coming into the room as she’s speaking. Her expression turns to exasperation, but she keeps smiling as she picks them up or gently tells them to wait for her. “This is what it’s like, every minute of every day,” she says.

So how did a 26-year-old from Mendham, New Jersey, end up as a caretaker for so many children? She certainly didn’t plan it that way.

At the tail end of high school, Doyne started feeling frustrated that everything she was doing was so focused on college, and she realized she felt lost about what to do with the rest of her life. So she signed up for a gap-year travel program, backpacking around the world with a group of other students, visiting Buddhist monasteries, doing conservation work, scuba diving, and working in a village in Fiji.

“It was amazing,” she says. “I was pretty burnt out from school, and so it was good to step out of the classroom for a little while.”

In her second semester, because she wanted to work with children, she was placed in northeastern India in a program for Nepalese refugees. During a civil war in Nepal from 1996 to 2006, Maoist rebels recruited children to fight, Doyne says, and kids were sent out of the country by their parents or fled themselves. The United Nations estimates that war orphaned and abandoned a million children in Nepal, Doyne says.

In 2006 she went backpacking through the country with a Nepalese refugee girl, Sunita, who had been living in India for eight years. While in the remote Himalayan region of the country, Doyne says, she witnessed poverty on a scale that she’d never seen before. She encountered a whole community of kids—mostly girls—who were breaking stones by a riverbed. So she started enrolling them in school, thinking that’d be a good solution, she says.

But she realized a lot of kids needed an actual home, because they didn’t have families. “I really felt like if we really wanted to stop the problem, we had to get to the source,” she says.

Maggie Doyne
Maggie Doyne with children from Kopila Valley. (BlinkNow Foundation)

Doyne convinced her parents to wire over her entire life savings of $5,000 so she could buy a piece of land and settle in the Kopila Valley community. At first, she expected to house only a few children, but she kept taking in more and more. The process didn’t happen overnight, but she now has 40 children in the home, whose ages range from 3 to 16. Doyne says they are a big family—they nurture each other and call everyone who works there “auntie,” “uncle,” “grandma,” or “dad.”

“If we want to change the trajectory of these children’s lives, then we have to get them from the start, and we have to change the model for orphan care,” Doyne says. “They have to be raised in a home. We never use the word ‘orphanage.’ Actually, I don’t even think the kids know the word ‘orphanage.’ We use the word ‘children’s home,’ and they’re a family.”

Doyne couldn’t take in every single disadvantaged child herself, so that’s how the school was born. Kopila Valley screens about 800 to 1,000 kids per year, and it accepts the neediest cases. She finds them through the police or tips from relatives. Doyne says the school has a health clinic, a big lunch program, and an after-school program—but most important, it gives kids who’ve suffered from trauma and poverty a safe place to go every day.

“When they come in, there’s almost like a rebirth that happens,” Doyne says. “And that process is different for every child. It could be a day ... Or it could take a year. I had a kid who came in, and she didn’t even speak for a year.”

After four years of running the school, Doyne was ecstatic that the kids were learning so well and that everything was coming together—except their home lives. Doyne was baffled because her team could not figure out a way to combat the problem. The kids would come to school totally filthy—one drunken uncle even lit a girl’s backpack on fire, she says. At this point, women were coming into Doyne’s office every day with one horrific story after another—of being battered or how their husbands came home drunk.

“We’d show up to the houses, and they would [show signs of] severe abuse and neglect,” she says. “A lot of times the women are just really struggling day to day to make ends meet ... We thought if we could only get their home lives better, the kids would improve.”

So Kopila Valley bought a few sewing machines and put the word out that the school would be holding a meeting for any woman in the community. That morning, Doyne says she was running late, grabbed a cup of coffee, and dashed over to the school. She was shocked to find about 160 women sitting in the cafeteria, all looking to join a women’s support group.

“We didn’t even know what we were doing,” Doyne says with a chuckle.

Nepal
Courtesy Maggie Doyne

She had to narrow it down to a group of about 70 women, and classes on parenting, health, and cleanliness run in different time slots six days a week. Right now the women are doing basic seamstressing and working with fabrics. They are learning how to make sanitary pads, because menstruation is taboo in Hindu culture, Doyne says. They make yoga-mat bags, school uniforms, backpacks, bags, and pajamas. In the coming months, Doyne wants them to learn jewelry making and numeracy—which she says has been proven to fight against trafficking, since women who know even basic numbers on a cellphone are more likely to be rescued.

But the classes are all encompassing, Doyne says. Nepal has a caste system, and a lot of women suffer with depression, abuse, and severe poverty. “We make them realize by coming together that they all have the same struggles, that they’re all in it together. They are not as isolated,” Doyne says.

At first the women thought they were going to the center to learn skills, finance, and literacy, but “what I’ve been learning over the past couple of months is that they need some socialization and a place where they can come to laugh,” Doyne says.

According to a 2010 study, suicide is the leading cause of death for women ages 15 to 49 in Nepal. It’s also a deeply personal problem for Doyne. Her own village has lost seven women and a student to suicide in the past year.

“I felt like I had to do something about this,” Doyne says. “I can’t listen to women come in here feeling so helpless. I have to do something.”

The women’s center gives them something to look forward to every day, she says.

Doyne makes sure to point out that many volunteers from around the community and abroad help to make Kopila Valley Children’s Home and School a success. Doyne’s foundation, BlinkNow, has an office in Morristown, New Jersey, and is supported by fundraisers, private donors, grants, and her speaking events.

Even though Doyne says never expected to be where she is today, there is no doubt in her mind that running the home and school with her 40 children is her calling.

“I wake up every day saying ‘I love my job,’” Doyne says. “That’s my message for young people, especially for young women: do what you love and what makes you feel good.”