Maggie Doyne on Uplifting Children and, In Turn, the World
New Jersey native Maggie Doyne was age 18 when she arrived in Nepal, 19 when she had co-founded the BlinkNow Foundation nonprofit to support children in the district of Surkhet, and by 25, she had become a mother to 40 children.
Doyne’s unlikely story began in 2005, with the decision to take a gap year after high school and travel; she felt it was necessary to press pause on a more expected path and learn about herself and her purpose in the world. Upon her visit to Nepal, Doyne fell in love with the country and the people. But she also found it in the aftermath of a nearly 11-year civil war, with displaced families, schools shut down, and children breaking rocks to sell for money. Doyne gathered her babysitting savings—just five thousand dollars—to buy a piece of land in Surkhet, and started a children’s home there. She still lives in that home now as the mother to 54 children.
Today, BlinkNow, which she co-founded with her Nepali friend Top Malla, supports the Kopila Valley School, as well as a children’s home, health clinic, “Big Sister’s” home, and women’s center. The Kopila Valley School’s new campus opened this past February. Not only does the pre-primary through 12th grade program have 20 classrooms to educate more than 400 students, it is one of the greenest schools in the world. For her work, Doyne has received the Unsung Hero of Compassion Award, presented to her by the Dalai Lama in 2014, and was recognized as CNN’s 2015 Hero of the Year.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, the 32-year-old Doyne discusses her path from presumably college-bound student to full-time mother of nearly five dozen Nepali children; experiencing heartbreaking loss and meeting the love of her life; and the importance of taking action.
Doyne talks about her relatively cushy upbringing in suburban New Jersey and her decision, before applying to college, to take a gap year—one that never ended.
Doyne reflects on her time in Northeastern India and the events that led her to fall in love with the country of Nepal and its people—circumstances that led her to decide to build a life and nonprofit there.
Doyne recalls the hustle involved in building her BlinkNow Foundation nonprofit—which includes a school in Surkhet, Nepal—and becoming a mother to dozens of Nepali children.
Opening up about the death of one of her Nepali children in 2015, Doyne details her personal journey through the tragedy and learning to cope in the aftermath.
Doyne discusses unexpectedly meeting her husband, bringing him into her family of 50-plus, and having her first biological child with him. She also describes the global power of collective action.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Today on Time Sensitive we’re honored to have Maggie Doyne in the studio. Maggie’s an extremely inspiring person. She’s the co-founder and CEO of BlinkNow, a nonprofit that seeks to provide education and caring homes for orphan children in Surkhet, Nepal. For her work, Doyne has been widely honored from the distinction as CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2015 to the Unsung Hero of Compassion, which was presented to her by the Dalai Lama.
Welcome to the studio, Maggie. Thanks so much for joining us today.
MAGGIE DOYNE: Thanks for having me.
AZ: So, before Nepal was in your consciousness, before you became a mother to over fifty children and built this extraordinary nonprofit with all of these amazing centers and outreach programs, you grew up in suburban New Jersey. What was your childhood like?
MD: Definitely think about every stereotypical thing you could think about “suburban New Jersey girl.” [Laughs] We do not have the best reputation at all.
AZ: My wife’s a Jersey girl. I love Jersey. [Laughs]
MD: Oh, nice, there we go! Represent.
I was one of three girls, I went to a public school, Mendham High School. I grew up on a cul-de-sac backing up to Patriots’ Path. I had a dog named Sophie and a trampoline in my backyard. I played soccer and lacrosse. Just everything typical about suburban safety/security. [I was] not incredibly well-off, so to speak, but definitely a product of privilege, and getting to live a life in the suburbs where everything was safe and glorious.
AZ: You got through high school with this normal upbringing, as you describe it. And then you didn’t do the sort of normal path. What were you thinking when you were getting out of high school?
MD: Well, everything about me actually was thinking, College, college, college. It was just written right on my forehead. Everything I talked about, everything I worked for, was all for college.
And all of a sudden—the best way to describe it is that I woke up one morning, and was like, “Why?” Like, how am I going to make this huge investment, of everything, of money I didn’t even have, when I have no idea who I am on the inside, and what I want to be, and what my purpose here is? It was that question that led me to the path of just stepping outside of the bubble, the box, and the expectation. Because, as a kid in suburban New Jersey, you’re told, “Get to college, get into the best school you can”—it has to be a “name school”—“and get on the fast track to success.” That that was the way. And I had found that to be just not true. But I thought that it was.
Taking a step aside from all of that was the scariest thing at the time, but I took a gap year. I signed up for a gap-year program, thinking that travel and getting outside of suburban New Jersey and seeing something different, or experiencing a different culture, would help me find that question that I was asking. Ultimately, I think it was just an emptiness of like, you’re driven for the SATs and to be a good lacrosse player—
AZ: Your time is not yours, in a way. It’s so American.
AZ: In Europe, people take gap years. It’s sort of understood that you need a minute to figure out who you are at eighteen. But in this country, it’s really not like that.
MD: There’s no rite of passage or time where you just stop and reflect and say, “Well, who am I? And what am I going to do when I’m here?” We expect to go spend a hundred thousand dollars and figure it out by taking classes on a college campus, and now it just seems insane. But at the time, I thought that that was what I needed to do in order to find myself.
AZ: And what program did you find?
MD: There was a program called LeapNow, and it had a little office in Princeton, New Jersey, and I signed up for my first semester in the South Pacific: scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
MD: And learning Buddhism on a Buddhist monastery, organic farming, working in a Fijian village. It was so mind-blowing and completely just about self-exploration and learning outside of the classroom.
AZ: And then what happened?
MD: I was a babysitter growing up, and I was a camp counselor. I knew I loved kids, and I was really good with them. I said, “I want to work with kids somewhere.” I talked to the program, and they were like, “We think we have the right place for you.” And it was in Northeastern India. So I ended up traveling to Northeastern India, to a project called Ramana’s Garden, and it was there that I started working with Nepalese refugee children and families.
AZ: Right at the end of the civil war.
MD: Yeah, that’s right, it was coming to an end. Things were very unstable; there was an armistice in about ‘05, ‘06, and that’s right when I was there, so all of the Nepalese community was following the news and the events, and everyone had fled. Children in these refugee communities were sleeping under plastic. You can’t help but follow along and get caught up in that. I didn’t know where Nepal was, but when you meet the people and put a face to what was happening, it made me really want to go.
AZ: What made you fall in love when you were there?
MD: Well, initially, I met a friend. Her name was Sunita, and she was my age, and she’d left her village when she was eight or nine years old. She just wanted to go back and see her village and where she came from. And the two of us, in our young-adventure mode, were like, “Let’s go together! She had questions about where she’d come from and why, and I told her that I’d do the trip with her.
We end up on a bus for three days, and we get off the bus and there’s just a footpath. We start walking and finding our way back to Sunita’s village. It was there that I fell in love, on this footpath in rural Nepal in the Himalayas. It was beautiful. It was completely off the grid, a subsistence farming community, strong, resilient. Everyone who goes to Nepal just falls in love with the people, and so did I. But, at the same time, you could see the effects of civil war, and what it meant, and what it looked like.
AZ: Displaced families. Children who are really, really in need.
MD: Yeah, and women, the effects that it has on women recovering from a civil war, and schools that had been shut down, and homes that had been taken over by Maoist rebels, and children being forced to fight in a war that had nothing to do with them. It was interesting. That first trip was this adventure of, “Let’s go find Sunita’s home!” And we were harvesting rice and carrying water. [There was] all of the adventure that comes with going on a trek, but also an underlying realization of the struggle and what it means to be a child who loses your parents and is cold and hungry.
AZ: And then you met Hima.
MD: Yeah. We were on this riverbed in a trading-post town called Surkhet, which is further down, off of the grid of where we were, in this trading-post city. And there’s a riverbed. And as I cross the riverbed, I see a little girl. She was among a few dozen kids breaking rocks. I mean, imagine coming across three-year-olds, four-year-olds, eight-year-olds, picking up rocks and breaking them into pieces. It just stops you in your tracks. I literally stopped on the road of this dry riverbed, and there were kids picking through garbage and breaking these rocks all day long –
AZ: In order to sell them.
MD: Yeah, so they were selling them for gravel, and making a hundred rupees, or a dollar, a day. That was their existence. And they were happy! [Laughs] Smiling away, breaking their stones, and Hima looked up at me and she smiled and said, “Namaste, didi.”
At that point, I was aware of what was happening, and was just like, “Okay, I can’t do anything about a million kids or a hundred million kids, but what if I could start with Hima? What could I make better about her life?” And so she was the first girl who I enrolled into school.
AZ: So you enrolled her in school. Which cost you?
MD: It was, like, twenty-eight dollars. A uniform, a backpack, a pair of shoes. I talked to the local school about enrollment and admission fees. It was really simple.
AZ: And she was living, currently, in an orphanage?
MD: No, so this population of kids breaking rocks—Hima had a single mom, and Hima could live with her mom, and still does, but just couldn’t get [past] that barrier of all of those fees in order to get into school and needed—
AZ: So you get Hima into school, and then what?
MD: So then I start—I mean, it’s addicting. This work is really addicting. I start another girl, another girl, and I envision a day where I can walk over the dry riverbed and not see children breaking stones. Then I realize, early on, that that isn’t enough. Kids get sick, children don’t have a safe place to live, or a family, or food. So going to school is this distant dream and wish that’s not always attainable.
I realized that kids in the most vulnerable population also needed a home. I started dreaming about a homebase. And I hated orphanages. I hated them. I hated everything they stood for. I hated the word. So I was like, “Well, let’s just change it up a bit. We’re going to call this a home, and we’ll be a family.”
And that’s when I called up my mom and dad again. At this point, it’s becoming a gap two years. Gap life. [Laughs] I ask, “Hey, can you send me over my babysitting money?” As a babysitter, I’d saved up about five thousand dollars, and there was five thousand dollars of land for sale, and I thought, That’s it, I’m going to build this home.
AZ: So interesting that you took the money you had made from childcare and reinvested it back in childcare.
MD: [Laughs] That’s true, I never really thought about it that way.
AZ: That really struck me. It’s like, your life savings was from taking care of children and you wanted to take that money to take care of more children.
AZ: So you buy this piece of land, which is, by the way, in and of itself, for a nineteen-, twenty-year-old person to buy anything, much less a piece of land in Nepal, really unique. Were you at all concerned with, “Am I crazy? What am I doing?” How much were you working on shaking off all the programming from your whole upbringing, from society kind of telling you that this is not necessarily a normal thing to do?
MD: I think this is where being nineteen really played a role. Because, at the time, it felt easier for me to stay than it was to just turn around and go back and go to college and have that existence. I just had that fire in my belly, and the passion and the drive. The other thing is, I didn’t picture it being this grand scheme; it was just a little small part, something that I thought could do. And then maybe I’d go back to school. I didn’t know.
I think often people think I put a dot on a map and I was like, “I’m going to go save kids!” And it’s not that at all. It was just like, “I see this problem.” We started working with the local community. I have an incredible Nepali co-founder, named Top [Bahadur Malla], who was an orphan himself, and things at that point—we became an unstoppable force. We’re like, “We’re going to build this little home, and I’ll go back and babysit!” Because we ran out of money really early on, after the five thousand dollars.
AZ: And how many kids were living in the home?
MD: Well, all we had was the property and a couple kids enrolled in school. I went back and babysat, and I was just sending like, five hundred, seven hundred, whatever I could make a week.
AZ: You went home—all of your friends are in school. So you’re sort of alone.
MD: Yeah, I visited a couple of them at college, did some Jell-O shots, saw that they were pledging sororities and fraternities, and I was like, “This is not for me.” So there was a period where I just felt a little unsure, but ultimately, I just put my head down and started reading, reading, reading, and learning.
Also, being nineteen, I just knew I didn’t have all the answers, and I had to find people who did, and study development and study how to do this work. I was in the library all the time. Slowly but surely—I think we needed twenty-eight hundred [dollars] for a septic tank, and I couldn’t babysit my way … and that’s when the seed got planted. I did a garage sale, and then bake sales, and the word started to spread, and ultimately I sat down and wrote bylaws and started the BlinkNow Foundation, started talking to people and fundraising.
AZ: So you formalized it during that experience at home. How long was that trip?
MD: About five months, of just intensive study and work and writing my bylaws and a bit of a strategic plan. The home was slowly being erected, brick by brick, with the team back in Nepal, and they would take whatever I sent. My co-founder was doing the same thing, working and sending what he could, and little by little, the house went up. And then it became real, and people would start to send twenty dollars, five hundred dollars, and that was when we started the foundation.
AZ: That’s amazing.
AZ: And then you went back.
MD: Yeah, and then I went back, put all of the finishing touches on. We painted it yellow, built the bedrooms, started working with the local government on assessing the needs of the first group of kids who would come into the home. Initially, we thought, three or four or five, really small, children’s home. I think, after the first year, we had about fifteen kids. [Laughs]
AZ: At this point, were you receiving any negative pressure, you know, that voluntourism kind of gets sometimes? Were they not welcoming to you in any way, or were there skeptics?
MD: No. So, the voluntourism debate—I don’t think it started until 2011, 2012, and at that point, it was just us as a team in Nepal doing our thing, fulfilling a need, working with the government. I think working in deep partnership and collaboration with the people—yeah, my journey definitely started out as, sort of, that, and I have a lot of self-consciousness about that. [Laughs] About, you know, being a traveler who saw a need, but …
AZ: Yeah, but you’ve taken such a different approach to it. You’ve collaborated, and you’ve had humility in the process, which I think is what’s missing in a lot of the debate right now.
MD: Yeah, yeah. But at the time, we were just doing our thing, and so overwhelmed with the number of kids and cases, and we launched the school—I think we just had our heads down when we were doing the work, and learning as we went.
AZ: And not worried about where you were going to get to, which is what I’m so impressed by, that it was a daily practice for you. You didn’t have a grand plan of fixing something big; you just wanted to get through the week and get kids into a safe place.
MD: Yeah, exactly. Also, I think the thing I didn’t expect was that I’d become as close with the kids as I did, and that we did, and we slowly did become a family. We became a family just like any other family, and we had our struggles just like any other family. We just became so incredibly close.
AZ: Because your main job was running a household, just like any parent right now. Get the kids up, get them fed, get them dressed, get them to school—
MD: We’re going to raise these kids!
AZ: Were you taking on any specific gender role in that, you and your partner, of a mother and a father, or how is that working out?
MD: No. So my co-founder, he was working and living in India. That’s where he was working, so for the first six years, it was just me, and another couple—actually, Sunita’s parents, who we ended up finding, and they were refugees and wanted to move back to Nepal. So they were “Auntie” and “Uncle,” and I was “Maggie Mom.” It was sort of like a commune. We built a small home and a small family. I wasn’t even “Mom” to begin with—I was just “Maggie”—and then slowly, over the years, I became “Maggie Mom,” and for the little ones who came in I became “Mom.” But it was never anything that was forced. It just sort of happened. I wasn’t expecting that at all, either.
AZ: Were you reading parenting books during this time?
MD: Oh yeah, Dan Siegel’s my guru. And every parenting blog, every healing—because the kids who come in also come with a biological family who has passed, and grief and trauma, and not knowing where the next meal is going to come from. We had to work through a lot of that, and slowly build up a team of social workers and other aunties and uncles.
Initially, our whole staff had been orphans themselves as well, and that really worked. I wanted the kids, besides me, to see Nepali people. So it wasn’t necessarily mother or father roles; it was building a loving family commune, just all of us working together.
The thing I read about children’s homes is that kids grow up in these institutions, and they don’t have the skills that they need to make it and stand on their own two feet. So that was really important in the values—we grew our own food, we cooked meals together, and everyone worked together as a family, and the older kids helped with the younger kids. We played soccer and flew kites and read books, and it was just a joyful, loving family place with a swingset in the front yard, everything that I had been given as a kid. I just tried to replicate my own childhood in a lot of ways.
AZ: Amazing. So you have this home, and then you build a school, the Kopila Valley School. So you had first taken on the domestic issues, and now you were taking on education. How did you approach that?
MD: Yeah, I think, initially, it was just, a lot of kids—like Hima, she didn’t need to come and live in the children’s home. She had a single mom and a really loving family, but she just couldn’t get over that hurdle. So a lot of the kids we were supporting didn’t come into the home. In fact, it makes up a very small percentage. It was initially the vision of get everybody under the same roof. And kids needed medical care, clean water, a meal every day—nutrition just became really huge. So the first year or two of launching the school was full-service, and give them the support they need outside of academics, because, again, basic needs are the most important thing. And then we started at looking at building curriculum and hiring teachers and finding school leadership.
We learned as we went along, drew inspiration from other schools and projects, focused on the ethos of love and family and caring for the planet and caring for each other, and reading and math and science. The schools in the region were all practicing corporal punishment and hitting kids with sticks. And initially, again, like the orphanage debate, I was like, “I can do better than that. Come on, I’m not going to have a school where kids get beaten when they don’t know an answer.” So it just started with really good, healthy nutritious food, loving teachers, and making it a place where kids were safe.
AZ: Yeah, you were living with heart, not head, entirely. You were really leading with an empathic approach, which was turning up such good results, in a lot of ways. So you get the school going, then you get this lunch program going, and then a women’s center. How did that come about?
MD: We realized orphan care is very symptomatic. Just the word “orphan,” it means that a child has lost their parents, and it’s wrong and it shouldn’t ever happen. And kids are losing parents to things that are preventative. So one of the things we realized was that, to get to the source of the issue, we really needed to start working with mothers and women. Suicide became the leading killer of women of childbearing ages in Nepal. It seemed like the natural step. We could only control the kids’ wellbeing and safety and education once they came inside the gates of the school, but if a child was experiencing violence or lack of food in the home, there was only so much we could do there. So it felt like the next step was to start empowering women. We opened up a class to a class of women, and seventy women came. We started training and sewing and seamstressing and doing a full-empowerment course, and what we realized is that mothers can provide for their children when given the most basic things. They just needed a little bit of training and an income source.
AZ: And then, a clinic?
MD: [Laughs] Yeah.
AZ: I mean, you keep reading about the things you’ve done, and to you, it seems so obvious, “Well, next we did this …” But it’s extraordinary, this trajectory of what you were able to build to fix these larger issues, with a very small team.
MD: It’s love, it’s their health, it’s their wellness, it’s their social wellbeing, it’s after-school activities, the arts, sports, and if you can uplift a child, you can uplift a community. These issues surrounding poverty and development and post-war impoverished regions are so complicated. Like, a kid can’t come to school if they’re drinking dirty water and going to get sick, or not be nourished enough to make it to the age of five. Or have violence in the home that’s inhibiting their ability to learn. So I look at it as an organism and its layered, and you can’t just put a Band-Aid and fix one part of the issue.
Now I couldn’t just enroll kids into school—it didn’t address every issue—so I started to look at going deeper. It happened naturally and slowly and organically. I think all good things do. And it happened with the help of experts and a team, and us looking to address these issues really holistically. One thing led to the next, and slowly we’d build on another thing, and it was all surrounded by the concept of “a whole child,” and what does a whole child need to become who they’re going to be? We want our kids to become the next future leaders of Nepal.
AZ: How are you finding the time to raise the funding to do this?
MD: Oh, it’s just pure hustle. I mean, the first couple of years were really scary; you’re a mother, but you’re also a CEO now running a foundation that’s small and budding. I was really young. The first thing that happened, that really set the course, was winning CosmoGirl of the Year. A friend of mine, a dear friend, Megan, put in my picture and submitted a short entry to CosmoGirl magazine, and sure enough, a couple weeks later, I got a call. The gal’s name was Rachel, and she was in New York City here, and she said, “Congratulations, you’ve been selected as CosmoGirl of the Year, and it comes with twenty thousand dollars.” She also told me that it got even better—that I was also going to get a Maybelline makeover. [Laughs]
AZ: Which you were really looking forward to. [Laughs]
MD: In Nepal, that’s exactly what I needed, was some Maybelline. But sure enough, I flew to New York City, I had lice in my hair and had to get my hair done, the makeup, the fake eyelashes.
MD: I was so bitter. [Laughs] I was just like, “All I wanted was more bedrooms and to be able to pay the electricity bill.”
AZ: Couldn’t you just take the twenty thousand and bounce?
MD: [Laughs] It came with the deal. But ultimately, the piece came out, and what I realized was that those young girls across America didn’t care about the makeup. They loved the story, and they were inspired. They were starving for goodness and hope, and that we can all do something to make the world better. And that set off a chain reaction.
Later came Glamour, and then I was on the back of the Doritos bag, the Cool Ranch flavor. [Laughs] They gave us a hundred thousand dollars, which we used to build the school. I started a blog and started sharing stories, and we just started the nonprofit hustle, which is what it is, applying for grants, to family foundations, and crowdfunding. We crowdfunded a school bus when we bought our first school bus, because our kids were walking two and a half hours to get to school.
The nonprofit is an industry, just like everything else, and you have to connect with people who want to support your cause, and make it real and say, “Look, for twenty-five cents, you can feed a child’s school lunch,” and tell all of the good stories. In charity, we [often] tell the starving-child story, the orphan story, and we don’t do that [at Blink Now]. We say, “Look, our kids just won the national soccer championship.” “Look, Elise is up on stage reading poetry, and she won the poetry competition.” I just, really early on, wanted to change that narrative and paint a really positive picture of these amazing kids, because they are amazing. They’re just like any other kids. And that’s what we did.
AZ: Incredible. It’s so funny that you were able to set your own feelings aside and put this project first at all turns, which is, it seems, how this has occurred. When you finished the clinic, the sustainable farm, it seems like this new wave occurred. Most recently, you have this new campus, and it’s one of the greenest schools in the world. Tell me about how this occurred.
MD: Well, our lease was going to expire. That initial hundred thousand dollars from Do Something and Doritos, it was a five-year lease, and I thought, “I just want to build a temporary school.” The magic of a school happens on the inside. It’s the curriculum, the teachers, the culture, the magic that a child feels when they enter the school. So the lease was expiring and we had to figure out what we wanted to do next. Our school had grown and expanded, and we needed to expand with it.
AZ: How many kids are you at this point?
MD: Four hundred.
AZ: Every day, you’re educating four hundred kids, and you go home, and how many kids are living in the house?
MD: Fifty-four? We’ve transitioned a lot of kids now off at college and into apartments of their own. It’s been a new era.
AZ: And you’re still living in the house?
MD: Oh yeah, I’m still there, still in it. We have other “house parents” with me, because it has grown, and a really strong Nepali team of caregivers. But yeah, we continue just to grow, slowly and holistically. The initial school we built was great, but it was bamboo and tin, just like a shack of a school. What was happening on the inside was magic, so we appealed to our team, we got a couple grants, a humanitarian award; we bought a small piece of farmland just a couple miles up the road on the side of a foothill of a Himalayan mountain next to a beautiful temple.
AZ: In the same space that, fifteen years ago, you showed up off a bus walking into town, the same small town.
MD: Yeah, the same. Right there, on the edge. And there was a beautiful bodhi tree. I was like, “This is it!” We bought the property. And this time, I said, “If I want to build, we’re going to do it sustainably and ethically and with the world in mind.”
This was in 2015, when all of the reports started to come out about the effects of the environment, and Surkhet started to develop with the school, with the development there, and after the Civil War and finding our way to democracy. People were burning plastic and garbage, and I started to worry about the environment and my kids’ health and wellbeing, so we decided to build a green school. It’s completely self-sustaining. There’s a rainwater-harvest system that’s genius, and the kids’ biogas from the toilet turns into gas to cook food and run the Bunsen burners, and the water regenerates and filters through a reed bed system that gets pumped back up to blackwater and greywater that’s used to irrigate and clean; there are solar panels; there’s a solar cooker, the walls themselves are rammed earth, because they’re earthquake-proof and also very low-carbon and high embodied energy and maintain a perfect temperature. So that, with our team, became the project of the last couple years, just building the kids a dream school.
AZ: Did you go to Bali to see the Green School?
MD: Oh yeah.
AZ: I was there last week.
MD: Were you?
AZ: Yeah, I just got back from it. And you walk through that, you think, “This is extraordinary. This is such an amazing place.” But of course it’s also a place of privilege, and an expat community, essentially. And when I thought about what you were doing in Surkhet, [I thought] this was actually the way it’s being done in a local place for the local children. I thought it was a very different approach to it.
MD: Yeah, we’re all about quality. Those kids who go to the Green School in Bali, they deserve that education.
MD: And our kids, who are orphaned and vulnerable, they also deserve that school. Paul Farmer says this best. He’s like, “If my mother were sick, would I send her to a substandard, developing country hospital, or would I find the best treatment I could?” We have that same philosophy. These are our children, and they deserve the best schooling, the best quality possible, every privilege and advantage in the world. That’s a lot about the philosophy. That’s why we go so deep in the community. We feel like our kids deserve everything. And that’s rare. It’s hard to find that in the developing world, and in countries like Nepal. A lot of times, quality is sacrificed.
We just believe that these are our kids, and they deserve everything. That’s what I want to see in this world. How do we get it so that every child has that level of quality and access and privilege? Because the privilege—I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I just came back to New York, and I’m here, and you do see a lot of privilege. The privilege isn’t the problem; the problem is that not everybody has access to the privilege. It’s the spectrum, right?
AZ: And this idea of economies of scale: “Well, privilege here is different from privilege there.” No, privilege is the same. We should all have access to the same quality of life.
MD: Basic needs and human rights. We’re talking clean water, high-quality healthcare, access to education, safety/security, the chance to live and thrive and grow.
AZ: While caring for the environment and our future.
MD: It seems so basic, right? [Laughs]
AZ: It seems so basic, but in this late stage of capitalism, it’s not. So it’s one thing for there to be these incredible, sustainable schools in faraway places that you can leave New York and visit there for a year and enjoy. It’s a whole other thing for kids in Surkhet, who before didn’t even have necessarily a school or a home, to get a similar experience that the kids of high privilege are getting.
MD: Yeah, and there’s this whole narrative of like, “Well, you deserve that because you work so hard for it, and your kids deserve a certain thing,” but what’s to separate—these are our kids, we’re a human family here.
AZ: It’s something you said when you accepted your CNN [Hero of the Year] Award. You said, “We are one. These are all of our kids.” Something that struck me quite deeply. You must’ve been born into that perspective or brought into that perspective, but it’s so unique in this day and age. It’s something we need so much more of, an idea of oneness. It’s human—beyond gender, beyond race, beyond location.
MD: And we’re only as strong as our weakest. The thing is, it’s good for all of us to have our children cared for. On a micro level, it’s just the right thing to do. You see a child breaking rocks all day, you see a child growing up amongst violence and not having their basic needs met, it’s the right thing to do, to care for children. But, on the macro level, if we could just see that children not being cared for and safe has a different correlation to our GDP and global economics and war and violence and these cycles, and that the way to stop it is to care for our four- and five-year-olds who are vulnerable. There are a hundred and sixty-five million orphaned children. We’ve figured out so much. We’ve sent people to the Moon and outer space, we’ve built these skyscrapers that we’re looking at, and we just haven’t figured out how to take care of a child, of our children, on a massive scale. And that means we have our priorities not set straight, to me. That’s what it tells me. And you can see that. Because we don’t talk about it enough. We don’t talk about the fact that our children are hungry and dying.
AZ: Every day. Right now.
MD: Mm-hmm. Look at what we talk about every day. You turn on the TV and it tells you everything about what our priorities are. And I hate doing this and preaching about it—
AZ: No, but if we don’t talk about it, it’s not discussed. And I think some of us have earned the right to preach.
MD: [Laughs] Thanks. But it’s amazing to me how fast we get distracted and offtrack of what we need to have, and where we need to go next, and to go back to the beginning, who we need to be, what we need to accumulate. When is enough enough? When can you say, “You know what? This is enough, it’s time for me to look after my fellow humanity.” And that’s the question that I’m wrestling with right now, as I see children coming to us in numbers that we can’t even begin to handle. So, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.
AZ: Well, it’s the discussion, it’s the conversation. And it’s the move right now from people sort of barking and selling to people actually discussing and figuring out problems. I think we’re moving into a place in the world right now of the end of the age of the presentation and moving into the conversation. I think once we move toward conversation, we’re going to begin to solve things, because with conversation, the ego dissolves, in a way. The individual dissolves and something larger occurs.
Which brings me to my next point, which I’ve thought a lot about. You’ve spent your whole adult life—the last fifteen years—largely concerned with others. And that’s taxing. At a certain point, it wears on you, I’m sure, to not be concerned with the self. And I know that in 2015, there was a tragedy in your family that I know is probably hard to talk about, but I did want to bring it up within your story. You lost your youngest family member, Ravi, who was two years old. I’d like to hear a little bit about that, what happened in the aftermath, and what came after that.
MD: Yeah, well, the thing about Ravi is that he came to us when he was two and a half months old, and he weighed about three pounds. He had lost his family and was a victim of starvation. It just so happened that, of all the people on our project, I was at the gate one day when his older sister brought him in. So it was a really tumultuous journey. He was on death’s doorstep when he came, and we were in the NICU and fighting this.
The thing about starvation is that it’s actually really difficult to address, because the body’s system is shut down. So it was a really long journey. It’s so hard to explain in words, but Ravi became a happy, chubby little brother and son to me, and overcame every single obstacle that there was. And there was an accident one day when a gate was left open. He died in an accidental drowning. It was just—there are no words. It was horrific. He was just the closest person to me in the whole world. I had him one second on my chest and passed him off to a caregiver, and ten minutes later, he was gone. It was just like the world stopped, I guess. I was a caged animal. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, and it’s incredibly difficult to talk about. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t be a mom. I think my children lost their baby brother, but they also lost a piece of me that day.
Ultimately, I had to come back to the States and get help and get support, and I thought that it was the end of me and the family. So yeah, there were quite a few months there where it was just darkness and I couldn’t get out of bed, I needed a lot of help, and also just to be on my own. And we’re not okay. It’s still very raw and very painful. We still don’t feel like it’s right, and we miss him. But eventually, I got myself out of bed, and wanted to live again.
After CNN Heroes, there was an event in L.A. at the Annenberg Foundation, and all of my best friends were like, “You just need to get out.” It was snowy and freezing cold here—it was February or March—and they were like, “You need to get out.”
So to make a really long story short, I flew to California, and I was like, “I can’t do a training, come on.” And they were like, “No, you need to try.” My best friends, Rhoda and Libby, said, “Just try.” And I do, I go to this training, and that night, I went out, and that was the night that I met Jeremy [Power Regimbal], who’s now my husband. I had met him at the DO Lectures, and he had given me his number—we had been kind of close friends. But it was in L.A. that we had met up again, just by chance, and I was like, “Oh, that’s crazy.” It was a time when the scariest thing in the world was to love again, and then I went and fell in love, and met this amazing man—just instant love-soul connection is the best way to describe it. It was like we were meant to be, never left. We travelled back to Nepal together, because of course we start dating and I’m like, “Well, the first thing you need to do is come to Nepal and see the kids and see what this is all about.”
AZ: “Meet my family.”
MD: [Laughs] Yeah.
AZ: You have to take him home to your family. [Laughs]
MD: And he makes commercials—he’s a director in L.A. He’s Canadian and grew up on a farm and is one of six kids, so he got it, but his reality was very, very different when we met. And yeah, Jeremy and I fell in love and went back to the kids, and he ultimately helped me a lot through that journey of getting back to Nepal and being a mom again and getting back on my feet. That was when—I think it was a big test to the organization of everyone really coming together as a team and getting through tragedy.
AZ: And that through tragedy, some sense of light is on the other end.
MD: Yeah, I hope so. My wish after being through this—
AZ: Well, you just proved it, I mean.
MD: Mm-hmm, and you just want that for anyone who goes through a hard time.
Actually, my biggest fear was that I would die. If not physically, that I would never be the same again, I would never feel joy again. It was other moms who had been through it who said, “You will feel joy again. You will. It’ll never be the same, but just trust me, there will be something.” And for me, it was Jeremy. We ended up getting married with all of the kids at the top of a Himalayan mountain. I had, like, six flower girls and twenty groomsmen and twenty-five bridesmaids; all of the kids walked me down the aisle, and he’d asked their permission first. It was like he’d always been there; he fit so beautifully into the fold. And we got pregnant and had a baby, a biological baby named Ruby, and that’s where we are now. I have a sixteen-month-old.
AZ: What was it like, after having taken care of all of these children for fifteen years, to then be pregnant and go through all the other stuff that you hadn’t experienced? It’s as if you’d experienced parenting first, before you’d actually been pregnant.
MD: It was interesting. At first I was really defensive because people would be like, “Oh, you’re having a child of your own,” and I felt like it kind of disregarded my role as a parent and as a mother. There was a lot of sensitivity. Even my kids were like, “Will you love this baby more because she’s in your belly?” So I was very defensive about that.
I eventually talked to a woman who was an adoptive mother, and she was like, “Well, it is different. You have to acknowledge that it is different. Mothering a child from your belly—that’s just physiologically different. One’s growing inside of you and looks like you, and the others grew inside of your heart.” It helped me to kind of navigate that after talking through other mothers who had been through it. It’s just so gosh darn physical, having this baby inside of you. Eventually, I thought, Oh, I’m modeling for my kids, too, because they’re going to have biological children, I hope, some of them. It kind of helped me be less defensive and say, “I’m going to learn, I’m going to take this in.”
I was scared that I wouldn’t love her as much as I loved Ravi, because we were just so close. We were inseparable. I mean, he slept on my chest for a year and a half. So, in some ways, it was the opposite for me. I was like, “Well, what if I don’t love this baby as much as the others?” And all of that, as you know—you’re a dad—it’s all just out the window.
AZ: Yeah, you don’t have control over that. [Laughs] You don’t get to decide.
MD: [Laughs] It’s like, “Just get this alien child out of me!” And then you look at them, and you go through this intense, physical birth experience, and you’re looking at them, and that’s the biggest life secret. It’s just love. And it’s all real. It’s different, but it’s the same, and it’s unexplainable and beautiful and magical and miraculous. And there’s no sense in comparing it. You can’t compare love to love—it just magnifies. And that was the lesson.
AZ: And expands.
MD: Oh, it just expands. Yeah, it’s so funny that we think love is this thing that you can only have so much of. If only we could crack that one. It’s true—it just expands. There’s room for everything. There’s more room.
AZ: And so now you’re raising Ruby.
MD: Yeah, in Nepal.
AZ: In Nepal, with Jeremy.
MD: And the kids.
AZ: And you’re in a new phase of your life, where everything is sort of shifting in terms of how you see time, how you’re spending your own time, and the things you want to achieve. You’re also starting new things—you’re not slowing down. Which is something people—I think often they have a kid, and [have the mindset that] the more they take on, the less time they’ll have. But it seems that you’re only expanding more and more and more, and almost just getting started.
MD: Yeah, I’m thirty-two. I do feel like we’re just getting started. I also feel like the task at hand is so big, and when you do have a child and children, you realize this sense of urgency, like “I want this world to be better for these kids. It’s my obligation and my duty, and I won’t stop until we can leave this place better and safer for my children, and for our children and for the next generation.” So it just becomes bigger and bigger, and it does feel like a different era in a way.
You know, we’re running the foundation and the organization, but there’s a team and we’re Nepali-run. As founder and CEO in general, you have to start thinking about succession, which is a weird word when you’re thirty-two, but as a parent, I think you’re always thinking, This has to exist beyond myself. I have every intent on being around forever and doing this work until it doesn’t need to be done anymore.
AZ: And you recently started a new project with Jeremy. Tell me a bit about that.
MD: Yeah, so when Jeremy and I met, he was making a shampoo and makeup commercial, which you might know a little bit about. [Laughs]
AZ: I’ve made a few.
MD: And, gosh, the week we found out we were pregnant, he was on a makeup call, just traveling back and forth to L.A. and trying to figure out how to get more makeup in the shot. And we also adopted two baby girls who were nine months old and two years old, and he was kind of at a crossroads where he was like, “All right, where am I going to be?” And he had also been filming. From the day he came to Nepal, he’d had his little camera, and he was taking portraits of the kids. So we started a project called “Love Letters.” In my grief and in my loss, I’d started writing love letters to the children while I was away, in my healing process, just to promise them that I was coming back and that I was working on it. So that project is being turned into a documentary called Love Letters to My Children, which I can’t wait to see.
AZ: Neither can I.
MD: Jeremy’s been filming and chipping away at that. He started just to tell more meaningful stories about our world and humanity, and changing the dialogue of what we talk about, and the stories we tell.
AZ: What I want to end on is just that. We all have a desire to help, or most of us have a desire to help. But we struggle with a number of things, one of them being: how? Will it matter? What can you leave us with in terms of what you’ve learned about the idea of the individual, and how the individual can have an effect on society at large?
MD: It matters. Everything matters. Every step, every action. I think the reason why we’re in the state that we are is because of thinking “It doesn’t make a difference.” But what’s that quote? “A few dedicated people …” I’m going to botch it, but us as a collective humanity, we matter. [Editor’s note: The quote, by Margaret Mead, is: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”] You matter. The stories we tell matter. Every step we take every day matters. And as soon as we start believing that this is possible …
We’ve gotten into a narrative that it’s too big, the problems are too massive, there’s just no way we can do it. And as a result, we’ve put walls up: “Okay, well, I’m just going to control what I can control and protect me.” And that’s really dangerous. I think we need to open up and say, “We matter. We can do this. We have to believe in a world, and see an end result, where poverty— extreme poverty is unheard of.” And I have this vision of me being an old lady, gray on my rocking chair, surrounded by all of my grandchildren, and my kids saying, “Really? Grandma, was there a day that people didn’t have enough food to eat? There was violence and kids weren’t cared for?”
I just invite everyone to have that vision, because we also are what we believe in, and what we believe is possible. And just on a really practical how-to, look for the flare and the flicker. Whatever it is, the bees, the whales, the plastic—there’s so much to do, sadly. The oceans. There’s so much to care about, and so much to take action on, so I just tell young people, “It doesn’t have to be Nepal.” You can adopt a bunch of kids, but you don’t have to. Look for the little steps and the little things you can do, and also where your passion and your interest is. And then go for it. Take every step you can learning about it and getting involved. The little things.
Enough of us doing all of the little things is going to create that tipping point that is going to get us to the end. And as you said, the shift is happening. World hunger has been cut in half. We also have to remember that the world is getting better. It is. I know it, I see it. Enrollment of girls into primary schools is the highest it’s ever been, in the whole world. That’s going to have an effect.
AZ: We need to hear more positive stories.
MD: Oh, yeah. The world is a better place than it was ten years ago, twenty years ago. The U.N. is hitting their sustainable development goals, slowly but surely. Enough of us waking up to them and working together toward these goals will make it, will do it.
AZ: We need to practice rational optimism.
AZ: Thank you so much for being here today.
MD: Thank you for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on June 18, 2019. The transcript has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.