After finishing high school in Mendham, N.J., Maggie Doyne wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She'd been an ambitious and driven student -- the editor of her school yearbook, a varsity athlete, and the class treasurer -- but as she weighed her options for college, she felt increasingly burnt out, and decided that she should take some time off.
"I took what's called a gap year," Maggie said, speaking to The Huffington Post from her family's home in Mendham. "I was about to make this investment in my life, but I didn't have a strong direction. I wanted to figure that out."
For the first semester of her gap year, Maggie traveled with a backpacking expedition program called LeapNow, which leads students on service missions and cultural projects across the globe for a semester. And when it came time to decide on her Spring plans, Maggie asked a mentor how she could best "have an impact."
"I said I wanted to be of use and I wanted to work with kids," Maggie recalls. "So I headed off to India to work for an organization there."
In Northeast India, she met countless young Nepalese refugees who had fled the country after the recent Maoist uprising and civil war. One teenage girl she met had escaped Nepal six or seven years earlier, and hadn't been returned since. So she and Maggie decided to take a trip together - back to Nepal, to look for the girl's family.
"We sat on a bus for two and a half days," Maggie said. "At the end of the trip, we just came to a stop on the road, and the bus driver was like, 'Alright girls, you can't go any further.'"
The two teenagers then trekked for two more days through the Himalayas, ultimately finding the girl's former village. They received details about her dissipated family and where many of her relatives had ended up.
"The effects on the whole area were very, very raw," Maggie said, remembering the experience. "But I immediately felt attached the region, like I was supposed to be there."
Maggie grew enamored of Nepal's natural beauty, as well as the sense of community and optimism in its people, but she was also deeply affected by the orphans she met in the villages. She often saw one young Nepalese girl breaking rocks on the side of a dry river bed. The girl had no school, no family; she had nothing, but she still smiled and waved every time Maggie walked by. The girl's name was Hema.
"It was really this rude awakening," Maggie said. "I thought, it only takes $5 admission and $5 for a uniform to put her into school. Why can't I do that?"
So Maggie did. And then she put a few other young girls into school, too. And she realized she could do so much more by staying in Nepal and dealing with the refugee problem at its source, rather than waiting for these kids to flee to India, or, worse, get stuck at the border and find themselves victims of human trafficking or domestic servitude. She realized she wanted to give these kids a real, permanent home.
That was when Maggie called her parents from a "rickety phone booth in the middle of nowhere" and asked them to wire her life savings - $5000 she'd earned from babysitting in high school - over to Nepal. After a lengthy conversation ("I don't really remember what I said, exactly," Maggie laughed) her parents agreed to send the money.
Maggie bought a piece of property in Surkhet, Nepal, and assembled a team from the local community to help her dig the initial foundation for an orphanage that would double as a home for herself. But soon, Maggie realized she'd need more resources if she actually wanted to get it built. So she flew back to New Jersey and worked. She babysat, dogsat, house-sat, held garage sales, bake sales, and anything else she could possibly do to raise more money. Local papers eventually picked up Maggie's story, and soon checks from admirers started pouring in. In five months, Maggie raised close to $60,000.
With this added financial support, Maggie and her team in Surkhet were able to continue the construction and finish Maggie's home. She formed a Nepali board of directors and established her orphanage, which she called the Kopila Valley Children's Project. She registered as an NGO. She was only 22 years old.
Kids started moving in almost immediately and Maggie's vision was realized. "I could see exactly what I wanted," she said. "I had visited orphanages, I could create a model that works based on how I grew up. I want these kids to raise animals, to take care of each other."
But Maggie didn't stop with the orphanage. Last year she also established a school in Surkhet -- the Kopila Valley Primary School -- which currently enrolls 230 students and 14 full-time teachers. The kids eat a full, nutritious lunch every day, sometimes their only daily meal, given that they live in an area where 50% of kids under five are malnourished and malnutrition is the cause of 70% of deaths under the age of five.
Maggie's work is all done under the banner of her non-profit, BlinkNow. Its mission is to "empower young people to become pioneers in developing their own solutions to world poverty."
"I feel there's a big shift going on in the world, and people are not okay with the way kids are living," Maggie said. "I think people are really starving for hope."
Today, Maggie is 24 years old and has formal custody of 40 Nepalese children, all of whom originally came to her with no family, no money, and no education. Many were abused. She has provided all of them with basic medical care and food, and she has taught them to read and write. "The first little girl I took in is a genius," Maggie said. "She learned English in only a couple months and she reads every book I give her. I could see her going to Harvard or something."
When Maggie's own parents visit her in Nepal, her kids refer to them as "grandmother and grandfather." They continue to help her out as much as they can, especially with organizing board meetings and dealing with tax receipts. While Maggie is home in the U.S, her younger sister is back in Nepal, working at the orphanage.
"A lot of people think I grew up in a teepee or some crazy out there family, or I was raised in a hut in Africa," she said. "But I just tell them I'm a regular girl from Jersey."
Watch Maggie speak about her journey below.
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