I knew I would make mistakes when I started my organization, Next Generation Nepal
. It was unavoidable, I told myself, and I pledged not to be too hard on myself when it happened. I would just have to dust myself off and keep on going.
Now, sitting in the Little Princes Children's Home, located in a small village south of Kathmandu, I stared out the window at the small brick house we had built, just a hundred feet away. The house was empty. And that was a serious problem.
I wondered if my first big mistake would sink the entire organization.
Just a month earlier, on a warm day in February 2006, our world had been turned upside-down. I had been caring for 18 children — orphans of Nepal's ten year civil war — in a children's home outside of Kathmandu, when a woman showed up at the front gate. We had never seen her before. But she was no stranger; she turned out to be the mother of two of the young boys.
We soon learned that these children were not orphans at all, but trafficked children from a remote part of the country, taken from their parents many years earlier. The news was a complete shock. The parents were out there somewhere, thinking their children were gone for good. We needed to find them, to reunite the children with their parents. But it seemed impossible; the Maoist rebels controlled virtually the entire country — venturing into Maoist-controlled territory was terribly dangerous. My colleague had attempted it one year earlier; she was abducted and held hostage for a week.
This mother, though, had found us. She had been living in a shack in Kathmandu, a two-hour bus ride from the children's home. Her two young sons, five and seven years old, were ecstatic at having their mother back so unexpectedly. The other children, far from being jealous, sat with her as well, living vicariously through the young boys. The children were young, six and seven and eight years old, and they soaked in the love she poured out on all of them, a kind of love that they could never get from a thirty-year-old American volunteer, no matter how much I cared for them.
Farid and I had an idea. Farid was my colleague in this venture, a fellow volunteer, from France. We saw the effect the mother's presence had on not just her own sons but all the children, and decided that we would help her live in our village. We would reunite a family.
Together, we presented her with our plan. We would raise enough money to build a small house for her next door to the children's home. She could live there with her two sons, and we would continue to provide their education. She readily accepted.
We began emailing our friends and family, asking for a special donation to build the house. We estimated it would cost about $4,000 &dmash; a tremendous amount for us to try to raise. We begged and pleaded and our loved ones responded, giving generously to build the house.
We raised the money. The house — a simple brick structure — was built quickly by local men who needed the work.
The day arrived when the mother would come to live there. We waited with the boys, who had been so excited they had gotten up early and picked flowers to make welcoming garlands.
But the mother didn't come. She didn't come the next day, or the day after that.
Farid and I found her in her shack. For the first time, we met her husband, who had returned from many months of working in Nepalganj, a town in southern Nepal. He did all the talking, and explained that, while grateful for the offer, they couldn't move. She never had any intention of moving.
It turned out that the husband had found work near the shack. Jobs were scarce — there was no work down in Godawari for him. They had to stay in the shack to survive.
With just a little bit of due diligence, Farid and I would have learned that women from poor villages in Nepal never contradicted men. This instinct was only exacerbated by the fact that she was uneducated and perceived Farid and I as powerful foreigners. She had known all along that they would not have been able to move into the house. She had watched us build it, watched us tell her sons that she would be coming there to live, and said nothing. We could have proposed that she and her sons go live at the bottom of the ocean — she would have agreed to that too.
It was a devastating day for us. We had to go home and tell the boys that their mother and father were not coming down to live next door. We had to explain that it was our fault that we'd led them to believe that it was going to happen. They were crushed.
I worried that I had lost the trust of the children for good. But it didn't end there; I had to write letters to everyone who had donated, people who had given hundreds of dollars in faith that I was doing the right thing, and tell them that we had built a completely useless house with it. That was pretty much my entire donor base, and it was not a large group. I didn't know how I could ask them to donate again after that.
As usual, it was Farid who saved the day. He came in to find me staring out the window at the empty house. He handed me a two-page application form, from an organization called Room to Read. He told me that they donated books to Nepal to start libraries.
"We are going to make Godawari's first library, Conor," he said. "But you have to fill out this application. I cannot write so well in English."
A few weeks later, the children walked into their very first library. It was small, but we had managed to put down some carpets on the mud floor so they could sit down. The light was good. The bookshelves had been made by a local carpenter who needed work. The children huddled in groups of two and three. They carefully took the books off the low shelves and gently turned the pages. They spoke in low voices, because that's how you spoke in libraries, we had told them.
I had already written to our donors, telling them of my mistake. I asked their permission, retroactively, to contribute, not to a house, but to a library.
They sent back not just their blessing, but another donation.
Little Princes is a testament to the astonishing resilience of young children. It's a testament to the transformational power of volunteering. But it's also a testament to the people behind the scenes, those people who gave donations on blind faith, trusting that I would eventually get it right. And I did. Months later I was trekking through the mountains and tracking down the families of dozens of lost children. All thanks to the donations of those same people.
I am, and will remain, in their debt.