07/30/2015 11:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From New Jersey to Nepal: How Maggie Doyne Has Changed the World


When Maggie Doyne graduated from high school, she took what she thought would be a gap year; time to travel and explore before starting college.

With a backpack, and no particular plans, she left her New Jersey suburb, and headed east.

Very east.

She spent time in a Buddhist monastery, and helped with the construction of a sea wall off the island-nation of Fiji. Then she landed in India.

What happened next shifted the trajectory of her life.

I spoke to Doyne, now 28, about one fateful day ten years ago, and about the importance of doing good work.

Before we get to India, could you take me back to senior year of high school? How did you decide to delay college?

It wasn't something I was planning at all. I had tunnel-vision at the time, and my eyes were on nothing but college.

But then?

At the last moment, I changed my mind.

I thought: I'm about to make this huge investment of time and money, by going to college, but I have no idea what I want to do, who I want to be, where I'm going.

I needed to know what's on the inside of myself a little more. I thought maybe then I could make that kind of commitment.

I didn't want to go to college just because that was something I was supposed to do. An expectation.

Where did you grow up?

In a suburban, New Jersey community, and that's what people do there. They graduate high school, and go to college. There is no questioning of that decision, of that process of: why? Why all the money? For what?

It was a rite of passage that I wanted, that I was looking for.

I think we've lost that in our culture; that intersection, in-between time because we're all so focused on the next thing, on looking externally, always outside ourselves.

I thought, through traveling, I could find out something about myself.

And did you?

Yes, I would say I did.

I've found my life's path. I love what I do. I love my life, and feel very lucky. I think travel helped me step away from the noise and the expectations and the bubble.

It made me see that the world is so big, and is so beyond what I know.

When you're young, and you're going to school, how could the world not be centered around you? Then you step outside and you realize: 'No. The world is big and complex and I have to do something to make it better.'

Travel gave me my passion back.

How so?

I was in a classroom for thirteen years, just sitting there, taking in knowledge. Travel got me outside of those four walls. I was out in the world, exploring, meeting people.

It opened up my eyes.

What happened when you arrived in India?

I began working in northeastern India. At the time, there was a civil war going on in Nepal. As a result of the war, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese families, children, were fleeing. The country was in a state of war.

I was seeing this aftermath. I was seeing these kids coming across the border from Nepal, into India. I decided to travel into Nepal, with my young Nepali friend, with my backpack to see for myself what was happening.

Together we reached a trading post-town, where I live now. We stopped there for a few days, to get ready for the trek into the mountains, and we saw many, many children, breaking rocks - to eventually sell them.

I had never seen anything like that in my life.

I would walk past those kids every day, and would notice this one little girl in particular, Hima.

What do you remember about her?

That she had this orange, raggedy dress. And when she would see me, she would smile and say, "Namaste, didi," which means 'hello, sister!'

One day, I saw her picking through this pile of garbage, and I had this moment where I thought, "I need to help her."

I had been traveling for a while, and was feeling overwhelmed by the massive disaster of what was going on in Nepal especially. And it was depressing. I didn't know what I could do about it, but then I thought: what if I just helped Hima?

It all started with her.

Where is she now?

She's in school. She's in the seventh grade now, which I can't believe. She's doing really well.

How did you go from taking that initial step, towards Hima, to having this, now, large non-profit?

It didn't start as this huge vision. It started with a little girl. I kept thinking incrementally: what's the next step? And now, what's the next step?

And the next step at a certain point became a home, because a lot of the children needed a place to stay. They weren't safe. They had lost parents and were orphaned.

I knew I couldn't think about school, before I helped meet their basic needs. School is a luxury. They need a home and love. They need a family.

I'd seen a lot of orphanages and I hated them. I hated the model, I hated the word orphanage and I was like, "Well, I think I can do this better!'

So then I thought: what would it take to create a children's home? And how would I want to be raised, if this was me? How can I do it differently?

It started with five, six children in the home, and then it got bigger and bigger and bigger and suddenly I was putting these kids into school.

What was that experience like?

There was corporeal punishment in the schools, and I was trying to change it. I was trying to change the education system. I realized I needed to do it myself. We needed to start a school, and set the bar.

At that point we had so many children: street children, orphans, and beggar children, that it just made sense to have them all under one roof. That's how Kopila Valley School started.

I can't believe you were doing this at age 18, 19, 20.

I was growing up with them. If you think about it, I'm 28 now, and maybe it's strange.

In what sense?

In that I spent my youth there. Nepal was my reality. And it's hard when that is your reality, to navigate the rest of the world. You do get a sort of 'culture shock' coming back here, to the U.S., and comparing your life to your friends'.

How did you convince your parents?

It was a hard conversation. Initially, my plan was to do go back, and go to college.

There was never one big decision that I made that said: "OK I'm going to live there, and change my life completely, and sell all my things."

It wasn't like that. It happened in baby steps.

I didn't know I was going to fall in love with the kids, and that we would have this bond that we do.

What motivates you?

I want to set the standard for the way the world's children are being cared for and educated. I want us to all prioritize our children. I don't draw lines between cultures, or countries, or communities.

If we can't raise our children in a way that's loving and healthy and right, then what are we doing here? This should be our very first priority. I'm trying to send that message through my life, and through the model that we've created.

We're a huge team now. There are 70 of us on the ground. We're a women's center, and a community center. There's a nutrition program, and a health clinic.

I just want to create more goodness in the world. I don't know how else to live.

It takes tremendous courage and commitment to do what you're doing, Maggie. What about those of us who won't be going out into the world? Is it possible to make a difference living an ordinary, American life?

Oh, absolutely.

Children everywhere need guidance and love and authenticity!

I mean, it's not about putting on a backpack and going somewhere. It's about living with kindness. We need more compassion, and we need it everywhere. What matters is how you live. It's about making the most loving, conscious choices you can every day.

It's as simple as that.

Visit Maggie online here, to find out how you can get involved.