A Volunteer Trip To Nepal Turns Into A Lifetime Of Service
When 29-year-old Conor Grennan decided to move home to the United States after eight years in Europe, he opted to take a year-long detour around the world.
He had no higher aspirations than backpacking, but pressure from a friend prompted him to sign up to volunteer in an orphanage in war-torn Nepal.
Grennan thought his time at the children's home would be an impressive anecdote, something he could use to win over future first dates. Instead, Grennan uncovered a startling secret that would send him on a path to find fulfillment and family -- all in the service of others.
Grennan arrived at the Little Princes Home in Kathmandu, Nepal in November 2004. He expected to see scenery out of the pages of National Geographic -- dotted with dirty, dejected orphans like the ones that stared into the camera in television infomercials begging for checks from sympathetic Americans.
Instead, Grennan was bowled over by the orphanage's exuberant youngsters.
The job was grueling and the language barrier was difficult, but he quickly fell in love with the orphans. Over the course of his three-month stay, Grennan was continually impressed with the orphans' resilience in the face of the hardships they endured.
Grennan departed after his three-month stretch at the orphanage determined to return.
A secret revealed
A year later, after touring 16 other countries, Grennan returned to Nepal, enthusiastic about reuniting with the children who had touched his heart.
He thought he knew what to expect this time around. But one day, as Grennan was sitting outside the orphanage, a visitor approached. The woman was remarkable: she had traveled a great distance and she looked exactly like a pair of siblings at the orphanage.
She recounted how, in rural areas wracked by the country's civil war, children were taken by traffickers promising a better life for poor children in the capital city of Kathmandu.
Some children were abducted by Maoist rebels looking to fill the ranks with fresh faces. Others were voluntarily given by desperate families who had no way to feed them. Impoverished families were taken advantage of by traffickers, profiteering off the war's chaos, who planned to use the children as "orphans" to collect donations from benevolent tourists. Traffickers also sold some youngsters off as servants and laborers.
Suddenly, Grennan saw his young friends at the orphanage in a new light. These weren't orphans, he realized, these children had been taken from their families.
The woman revealed she had given her own two children over to a man who promised to take them to the city, where they would receive an education.
Grennan discovered the Little Princes Home's founder had been able to take them, along with other 16 children, away from a trafficker who was using a fake orphanage as a front for his operations.
The 18 kids Grennan had grown to love were luckier than most, but they hadn't seen their families in years. And what about all the other trafficked children?
He had to help.
By the spring of 2006, the country's rebellion was escalating and the situation grew dangerous. Maoist rebels were enforcing a countrywide strike that reduced life in the country to a standstill until the king agreed to step down.
Grennan boarded one of the last flights out of Kathmandu, reluctantly leaving behind the children that needed him.
Plotting how to help
Back home in America, Grennan found solace in his local library, researching how he could found a nonprofit organization to help the children reunite with their families.
Next Generation Nepal was born.
Friends and family were initially shocked by Grennan's transformation. "For everyone who knew me, [it was] impossible that I would be thinking of anyone but myself."
He had finally grown into the persona that he thought girls would swoon for years before. But he no longer cared about showing off.
"I wasn't trying to impress anybody...I was just trying to help these kids," Grennan recalls.
Grennan collected donations from friends and family to get his organization off the ground and returned once again to Nepal.
Trekking through the Himalayas, Grennan began to seek out the families of trafficked children.
A chance e-mail from a fellow University of Virginia alum interested in volunteering abroad brought Grennan a companion in December 2006: Liz Flanagan, the future Mrs. Grennan.
Together, the pair shared a passion to help. By then, Grennan's imagined pick-up line had become his life's mission.
One child at a time
Today, Next Generation Nepal operates two children's homes in the country, while working to reunite children with their families.
In most cases, the families are still too poor or unstable to take their children back full-time, but reunions, regular visits and living in the organization's rural home bring children closer to their relatives.
Next Generation Nepal is also working to stop child trafficking at the source by educating families about the practice and addressing the poverty that produces the situation.
"There just aren't organizations who are doing what we are doing," Grennan explains.
He believes his model is scalable and hopes to see it expand. Together, he and his wife -- who now have a 2-year-old son -- will continue to help Nepali children build a brighter future.
Grennan recently penned "The Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal" about his experiences to help raise money for his nonprofit.
Grennan's message is humble and at times self-deprecating. He deems himself lucky to have gained so much from his volunteer experience. If he had never opened the gate to the Little Princes orphanage, he estimates his future would have taken a bleaker path, leaving him "alone and miserable."
He makes no claim that he's exceptional; it's the opposite. He's the average Joe who stumbled upon greatness.
"If this guy volunteered and he had no desire to whatsoever, then it's proof that it's the act of volunteering itself that gives people the passion and skills."
He hopes readers take that message from his book and become inspired to get involved making a difference themselves.
"All you have to do is take that very first step," he says.