When I first met Maggie Doyne, I didn't realize how much she would impact my life. It was 2007 and I was working in my first reporter job for a small New Jersey newspaper called The Observer Tribune.
During my tenure there, I'd write about such non-events as duck pond dredging, holiday parades, fundraisers, school board meetings and statue dedications. This job might have given me the chops to seek out and write my own stories, but the good ones weren't easy to find.
I heard about Maggie via a spotty voicemail that I'd been left by an anonymous tipster. I could barely make out the message: "Amazing story. You must meet Maggie" along with a 6-digit phone number, and static rather than a final digit. I left messages on multiple voice mailboxes in search of my mystery protagonist, and a few days later got a call from Maggie herself. I was so excited to hear what the story was all about, so we set up a meeting at a local coffee shop, where she promised to tell me everything.
When we met I was immediately struck at how young and bubbly she was. She seemed more like a college student preparing for freshman year than a girl on the brink of changing the world. Just 20 years old at the time, Maggie sat down and unfurled a large sheet of paper, which contained the blueprints for a large building. I was immediately intrigued, and then she began speaking.
Maggie standing in the foundation of what will become Kopila Valley Children's Home
Unlike the other young ladies with similar upbringings to Maggie and myself, Maggie decided to forgo the traditional collegiate path of an upwardly mobile young adult and instead spent a year volunteering in an orphanage in India. There she met a Nepalese girl who asked Maggie to accompany her to her homeland in search of her family, whom she had been separated from due to civil war. Maggie and her new young friend trekked for two full days, eventually landing at the foothills of the Himalayas in a world far from anything Maggie had ever known.
Over our coffees, Maggie's demeanor got more serious, as she told me that what she saw shook her to her very core; orphaned babies, children, and teens alike living on the street, performing manual labor just to survive. She explained that the war in Nepal had left more 50,000 children, including orphans, ex-child soldiers and victims of sex trafficking, to fend for themselves. She told me how devastated she was to see a reality that she never knew existed, and how she felt she could never go back to her old life again.
"I had to do something," Maggie said to me with defiance and certainty. And that she did. Rather than coming back to her comfortable suburban existence, Maggie called her parents, and asked them to wire her the only $5,000 she had (saved from babysitting, pet sitting and collecting birthday checks) to buy a plot of land in Surkhet, a small Nepalese district about 400 miles west of Kathmandu. Her plan was clear: buy land, register an NGO, build an orphanage, and give these displaced children the life that she had enjoyed; one that delivered such basic needs as safety, health care, education, and most importantly, love.
My mind was racing. How could such a young girl accomplish all this? It seemed impossible. And yet I just knew that she would. Maggie went on to tell me that her $5,000 investment had only gotten her so far and that she was in New Jersey hoping to raise $50,000 in order to put a roof on her still-hollow children's home. She also was hoping to register her non-profit (which she called BlinkNow to commemorate the fact that she made the decision to change her life's trajectory in the blink of an eye), and create a board of directors. I looked at her in awe, and realized for the first time in my young reporting career, I had a story on my hands that almost literally wrote itself.
Unsurprisingly Maggie's story struck a chord with the community. After the piece came out, medical companies from the area donated supplies, local artists offered paintings for the not-yet-built walls, and cash began trickling its way in. When Maggie called me and said thanks to the exposure, she was well on her way to her $50,000 goal, I realized the power of storytelling, and became convinced it was my life's passion. The article, of course, was picked up quickly by the press; next by The Star Ledger, and then The New York Times.
Fast forward to now, and Maggie has accomplished more than is fathomable by even high ranking government bodies. She is the legal guardian to 50 children who call her "Maggie mom," and lives in a growing four-level house filled with colorful murals, flavorful cooking, singing, dancing and a host of special family traditions. In 2010 she opened the doors to Kopila Valley School, which is today attended by more than 350 Nepalese children, most of whom are the first in their families to ever be educated. Maggie has become fluent in Nepali and made sure to hire a 90 percent Nepalese staff, in order to help create local jobs. If that's not enough, Maggie has also built a community health clinic, Women's Center, and broken ground on Kopila Valley High School. Clearly there is no stopping the power of this young woman's determination to change the lives of so many children. I to this day well up when I think about the love that will follow Maggie throughout her life, not to mention the sheer number of future adults who will no doubt care for and cherish Maggie forever. The ramifications of her love are widespread indeed.
Since our 2007 conversation, Maggie's remarkable story has won her everything from CosmoGirl of the Year in 2008 to the Forbes Excellence in Education Award in 2013 to CNN Hero of The Year in 2015. She has spoken at various high-profile events, including the Forbes Women's Summit, and in 2014 was presented with the Unsung Hero of Compassion, awarded by the Dalai Lama.
After seeing Maggie's social media announcement that she is expecting a baby with her fiancé, filmmaker Jeremy Power Regimbal, and realizing it's been a full decade since we've spoken, I thought it would be a good time to catch up with my lifelong inspiration. Here, Maggie shares what life is like today.
Why did you decide to launch your own charity initiative rather than becoming part of an already existing one?
I was young when I first started and I had this vision for what I wanted a children's home and school to look like. My vision was different from all the existing charities I had come across, and that's why I decided to create my own.
You started when you were just 19, did you know what you were getting into, and how have you navigated seeing through such a huge goal?
When I first started, I don't think that I fully realized what I was getting into. I always say that I had the benefit of being young and naive. It was simple, I saw a problem that I wanted to fix, so I got to work. This isn't to say that it was all easy. There were many setbacks but I was resilient and focused - two other benefits of being young.
Can you speak about winning the hero of the year? What did it mean to you, what did it mean to your kids?
Maggie winning CNN's Hero Of The Year award
Winning the CNN Hero award was such an incredible moment for all of us in Nepal. I think we were all so proud of our work and so happy to have an opportunity to share our story with the world.
With over four dozen children who call you mom, do you you ever feel overwhelmed? How do your spread your time?
I think all moms get overwhelmed, whether you have 1 or 50. I do have moments, but I have a great team that supports me. We have Nepali caregivers, aunties and uncles who are always there for the children. It's not just me, it's a big team, and we all raise the children together.
You've created such an amazing family, can you talk about some of the family traditions that you have?
We've developed so many great traditions over the years but one I am most proud of is our nightly satsung tradition. Every evening after dinner we all meet for a family meeting where we sing songs, talk about our day, and discuss plans for the week. It's our family ritual and I am always amazed to see my youngest, just as engaged as my oldest. It's a special time.
Maggie and her fiancé, Jeremy.
Do you teach English or Nepali in the school?
We teach both Nepali and English in our school.
What subjects do you teach in the school and who are the teachers?
We teach the traditional courses math, science, social studies, language etc. We also offer extracurricular activities like dance, music, art and computer skills. We have an amazing team of teachers. Our principal has done a great job of finding wonderful Nepali teachers from all over the country.
Can you speak about some of the ways you integrate the Nepalese culture into the home and school?
The Nepalese culture is a huge part of life at the Kopila Valley Children's Home and School - from the food we eat, to the games we play, the holidays we celebrate and the curriculum we follow.
Has it been hard to learn the language?
I learned Nepali pretty quickly out of necessity. It was how I was able to communicate with my team and the community where I started the Kopila Valley Children's Home and School.
In a nutshell can you tell us a day in your life.
My days in Nepal are pretty busy. I usually start by waking the kids up and checking on them as they get ready for school. I sit with them as they eat breakfast and then see them off to school. Once they are at school that's when I start my work - checking email, taking calls, touching base with the US team. I usually have meetings at the school, the new campus or at the women's center. After the kids get home from school, I try to spend time with them before they have their quiet reading time. After dinner and our daily family meeting, I read to the kids before bed and if it's not too late, sometimes we can sneak in a dance party.
Congratulations on your upcoming wedding, how did the kids react?
Thank you! We are so excited. The kids knew before I did! My fiancé, Jeremy, asked the kids for permission during his last visit. They are all so happy - they love Jeremy as much as I do.
Being that your fiancé is a filmmaker can you tell us a little about the project you're working on?
We are working on a film called Love Letters For My Children. It's a documentary about my journey and the special relationship I have with my children. We are really excited about it and can't wait to share it with everyone.
What piece of advice would you give yourself if you were starting the journey all over again?
I think I would tell my younger self that there is nothing she can't get through when she has the support of family, friends and community.
You're living such a different reality from a 30-year-old woman in the U.S, do you ever miss it at all?
My life's journey has been different from the average 30-year-old woman in the U.S., but I wouldn't trade it for anything.
WRITTEN BYBelisa Silva