Givology Staff's Blog

Happy Kids Center Podcast

Check out our latest podcast with Happy Kids Center on [url=https://soundcloud.com/givology/givology-impact-series-15-happy-kids-center]Soundcloud[/url] and [url=https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/givology-impact-series-podcast/id1271456774?mt=2]iTunes[/url], and read the transcription below!
Delaney:
Welcome to the Givology Impact Series Podcast, where we share the experiences of social entrepreneurs and change makers around the world. Today we are talking about Happy Kids Center, which is a safe space where children who were effected by the 2015 earthquake are given the opportunity to learn and be creative.
I’m Delaney joined by my cohost, Vandana. We are also joined by Ellen Carney, who is connected to both Givology and Happy Kids Center. Today we are honored to have guest Nicole Heker on our call. Nicole studied Communication, Arts and Sciences at Penn State University. She went on to teach English abroad in both Thailand and Korea. She is currently living in Korea where she is focusing on earning enough money to be able to sustain herself financially long enough to focus on the Happy Kids Center without taking anything away from it. After Korea she will head back to The Center to train a new coordinator so that The Center can become Nepali run and managed. How are you Nicole?
Nicole:
Hi, I am doing well, thank you for that introduction!
Vandana:
[b]Great! So can you share with us the story of Happy Kids Center’s founding and mission?[/b]
Nicole:
Sure! So, Happy Kids Center was created after the 2015 earthquake which left 9,000 people killed and 22,000 people in Nepal injured. This earthquake occurred in the Kathmandu Valley area and specifically effected Bhaktapur, the town center, Durbar Square, and pretty much leveled the city. Children are usually the people most effected by these kinds of events. Our three founders, Joanna, Kevin and Chris were in Nepal after the earthquake and trying to figure out how to lend a helping hand which is when they discovered this incredible need for a space for kids to just be kids. With the help of local activists, community members and donors from all over the world, they came together and built this ‘Peter Pan land’ bamboo structure that has become the Happy Kids Center.
Vandanna:
[b]And what has Happy Kids Center become since its founding? What have you accomplished?[/b]
Nicole:
Oh man! So, Happy Kids Center has been on a crazy ride for two years. What started as this 'Peter Pan Land' bamboo structure, filled with toys and games and anything that would facilitate an expressive childhood, has morphed into a flagpole of the community! We are who people come to if they need extra clothes, need any kind of outside support, or for any holidays and festivals; we are kind of like their outside home and support system in this community. So, we have accomplished so much, starting with the rebuilding of the structure. What was once just bamboo is now plastered all around the outside, bottom edges to protect it and make it a long term structure because Nepal is subject to a lot of flooding. So, making sure that our structure would last forever or as long as possible was a huge goal! Other than that just making sure that our organization is set up as sustainably as possible and doing some soul searching as an organization, trying to find our identity. We have built an online community and presence that has really driven this organization; we have done a lot of fundraising; we are always asking questions, immersing ourselves fully in this beautiful community that we have gotten a chance to be a part of.
In addition to that we have gotten two girls into school, thanks to Ellen, who you guys will hear from shortly. We have also instated food days. We raised enough money to provide nutritious, large amounts of food for the community once a week. It baffles me that we have come so far! For a lot of these kids it is the only nutrition that they really get. So, we are looking to expand that, but for now it is such a huge win! Lastly, the educational programs! So, we have kind of been approaching alternative education, so we are helping them find their voice through photography, ESL curriculum that has been established, independent learning from our library, etc. We are always searching for ways to engage these kids in a different way because for some of them more formal education is at this point out of their reach. So we are doing as much as we can in the time that we have and the place that we have.
Vandana:
[b]Todays podcast is focused on the development and struggles of startup nonprofits. What encouraged you and your cofounders to create a whole new grassroots program instead of joining a larger organization? On that note, what do you believe is the benefit of smaller organizations as compared to bigger ones?[/b]
Nicole:
So, the founders got to Nepal and saw a need and they really just went for it. With that comes a lot of complications and struggles that we have definitely encountered along the way because of that. For example, finding our voice and making sure we are sustainable and as integrated with the community as possible. However, I think the benefit of being a smaller, independent organization is that we can really tailor to the needs to our community, our kids, and really find our voice in the community. We can contribute and change, and I think adaptability is huge with these kinds of organizations! I mean, we have grown from 15 kids to 80 kids and have crossed caste systems within that. So for us to be able to use the money we have raised in the ways that we see fit and to engage with the community in different ways and change our identity based on the community needs as we go is a huge benefit to being a smaller organization. I know every kids name, all of the volunteers know every kids name. We know their stories, we know where they live, you know? We are so connected to these people and I think that while some larger organizations have some major benefits, the benefit of ours is that it really feels like a family more than anything else!
Ellen:
And building off of that, we are really lucky to have the woman who is at the center every single day all year around, Chadanni Dyola. She is local Nepali girl, 23 years old now, and she is a full time teacher at the Dyola school as well. Having her as the go to person in our community has made it so much easier for us to connect and understand the community in different ways as outsiders coming in. Sometimes it is really tricky, there is a lot that we don’t understand about the culture, for example, like Nicole said, the caste system. I don't know how much you guys know about the caste system, it is not something that is officially intact, but it is a socioeconomic hierarchy that has a major presence and impact on everyone who lives within it, whether you are at the top or bottom. There is a lot about it that we have a hard time wrapping our minds around and we have a lot of privilege coming into these communities. It is so important that we have someone who is at home in this community and someone who can help us to, I don’t want to say know our place, but understand our role in this community and make sure that we are not offending anyone or overstepping our bounds. Really, just making sure that we know how to communicate in these communities. We are really lucky to have her and I think that is what makes us so strong as a small organization is that we really do have those grass roots. Chadanni and her family really are the core of the center. For those meal day that we have, it is Chadani’s mother who cooks all the food along with some other local women. Chadani’s father is on the school board of the local school. Nicole, myself and Joyce, who is the head of our finances, we are around a much as we can hope to be but with visas and other aspects of our life we can’t always be there, and that is okay. But the center really would not run without Chadanni.
Delaney:
[b]That is amazing, you guys are clearly very involved in the community. Before creating the center, how did you and your partners approach researching the effectiveness of your program pre-implementation? In other words, how did you go about qualitatively choose what programs Happy Kids Center would provide so they could make the most impact on the children? Or did you choose a more unconventional route and choose the programs as you go?[/b]
Nicole:
So the Happy Kids Center’s beginning was a little unorthodox. Because of the circumstances after the earthquake and the limited time that the founders had because of visas etc. really with the help of the community and local activists it was kind of built and there have been some trials and errors along the way. But we have made a pretty good point, since the day I arrived, to ask the parents what they think our role should be. So we have hosted a few parents meetings where all of, well actually, mostly the mothers, will come and have some chia tea and cookies. We invited the principal of a local school, a local business man, a woman from a local women’s center to come and speak and talk about the importance of education and to ask the questions and have community discussion. Basically, ‘okay, this is here, how can we best benefit you?’ While those questions are so, so useful, and we got a lot of insight, there are also some things that are really hard to put into words. Unless you are there and experiencing it every day, some things seem so normal. So, to think to ask questions about them can get lost sometimes. So, we established for some time a photo voice project with is a type of ethnographic research where you give cameras to kids and we say, ‘go take some photos of your community, your friends, etc.’ and we look back on the photos and have the kids talk to us about the photos so we can really see what they are seeing and have them explain in their own voice how they want to be represented to the international community. This is so important, especially when working with children, there can be so much misrepresentation and lack of voice. So, that was a really big win, and that gave me personally a lot of insight into how they see the world and how they see us at Happy Kids Center. So, we will continue to ask these important questions and figure it out along the way.
Ellen:
Some of our biggest accomplishments have come out of problems that arise and we have to sort things out in the best way we see fit at that time. As Nicole mentioned, we recently got two girls into school and that arose after some serious family problems that they were having. We had already had a lot of good ideas floating around about how to get our kids into school, but it wasn’t until the pressure was on and we had a choice of either seeing those kids working in the street or get them into school ourselves. So, we threw something together and then ironed it out, and it is working really well now. We are hoping to get some more kids into school next year. It is one of those things where we are working as we go. As horrible as it is, some our best programs have come from the worst circumstances.
Vandanna:
[b]Oh, wow! And what was the community’s response to the Happy Kids Center once it was created?[/b]
Nicole:
It was actually pretty magically. Generally, a lot of the locals are pretty skeptical of NGOs in Nepal, especially after the earthquake. They watched so many people come in, throw money at things, throw projects together, and then leave. Some even pocketed money for their own organizations which left many Nepali people, at least those that we have spoken to, skeptical. But, I think that Joanna, Kevin and Chris did such a great job with the small amount of time that they had to really ask questions, get involved, and really make it a community effort, so it wasn’t just these three foreigners coming in and building something, but instead a community event. And because of that, its actually amazing, the former prime minister of Nepal came to our opening ceremony. There was a whole ceremony, a giant parade, drums, and we went through the whole city! Everyone was dressed beautifully and it was really an event of the town; cutting the ribbon; and people really trusted us from the outside which has led to our success as an organization!
Vandana:
[b]That is really amazing! So what are some of the challenges that your center has faced as a new organization? How are you approaching these things or how have you approached them in the past?[/b]
Nicole:
I am going to definitely ask for some expansion from Ellen on this as she has been on the ground and dealt with a multitude of unfathomable scenarios over there. Working with children has its own set of challenges, but starting as a new organization in general is also an interesting combination. There was definitely a lot of political changes in our community, challenges with us personally for visas, and always, always trying to balance what is best for our kids and also bringing in volunteers. Volunteers are at the basis of everything that we do and without them we would not exist at all. They have been an absolute blessing and people have gone above and beyond expectations. But, with that comes a lot of new people and changes and we always just have to check ourselves and say, ‘what is best for the kids?’ We have definitely had to make some changes within our organization. We are now asking only for longterm volunteers with specific projects. We just have to problem solve and think on our feet and get creative a lot of the times, which thankfully has turned out really well for us. When it comes to the more interpersonal things I am going to ask Ellen to jump in here because she has experienced quite a bit at the Happy Kids Center, so Ellen you can take over from here.
Ellen:
So, I was there for about four months this past winter into Spring for the second time in a year. My first experience was about two to three months and it was a lot of fun, but also completely heartbreaking. Walking through where our children live, kind of in the slums, seeing the living conditions and adjusting to what life in Nepal was like was the major focus. But, going back the second time, adjusting to the lifestyle there, I am not saying it was easy, seeing your kids rummaging through the trash in order to make ends meat to feed their families every night; that doesn’t get any easier. But, you become more well adjusted to the way the society works. However, I think the more time that I spent there this year the more that I saw the more intense, deep cultural differences you aren't privy to in the short term.
Earlier this year attended a child marriage…and that was a really strange thing to experience. A couple of our girls from the center, one was 15 one was 17, they were arranged to be married, taken out of school actually. And all of this was because their father had died from an entirely treatable disease the year before, and their family couldn’t afford to live any other way. And so, I am walking into this when I first arrived and it had already been planned, already been arranged. Nicole, myself and Joyce and a couple of others who had been involved in the community, tried to do everything we could to stop it. But, our hands were tied because, as we said, at the core of what makes Happy Kids Center work is that the community respects us and we respect the community. We are not here to change the society or the community or ‘fix’ it. We are here to be a part of it and bring as much good as we can to it and help them in the ways that we are being asked to help. So all that I could do in that situation was be there for the girls, support them, visit them in their new homes, talk to them about things that, in that society are not talked about, but are going to keep them safe physically and emotionally in this really strange time in their lives. So that was obviously a major challenge.
In a Western society, of course that is something that we would jump in and say ‘no, this is absolutely unacceptable’, you could call the police or call child services, but in this community I did not have any of those resources or options. So I had to be there, experience that and be as supportive as possible while witnessing something I never thought I would witness or be accepting of. Of course I am not accepting of the culture around it, but in that situation I had to be accepting of it. So, you know, working in a community that is so different from our own, I think that is a major challenge and trying to wrap our mind around these differences and things that feel absolutely abhorrent but in their society is a cultural practice. That is definitely something that creates a major challenge for Western women especially to be witnessing.
However, with that being said, we are now working on a program to prevent child marriage, working with the girls who we think could potentially be married off young and hopefully be empowering them both personally and financially so that it will not happen. Also trying to create an education sponsorship program that will keep the kids in school and will keep the families from having to marry their girls off young for financial reasons. So that is definitely something that you never get used to. But we are doing everything in our power to be preventative so that we don’t have to step in and be destructive of our place in the community.
And then with that in mind, there are many the political challenges of the caste system. Chadanni is a powerful person, she is an absolutely amazing woman. But, sometimes she does not have the power in these political situations because of her caste, or sometimes me going with her or her father gives them more power in situations when I am standing there having no idea what is going on… these things are really frustrating because you know their intellectual ability and you know that they are far more qualified to be handling these situations. So there are things of that nature, but the only thing you can really do is check yourself and recognize your privilege and your power and utilize it when you can, but also make sure that you are reminding the people you are working with that while you have that power you recognize, they are the ones getting things done.
Delaney:
[b]Clearly you guys have been doing a lot, especially those programs you are making to help the girls being forced into child marriage. Do you guys have anything currently that you are trying to accomplish or anything our listeners to can help donate to?[/b]
Nicole:
Oh man, we have a bazillion and one dreams that we want for the Kids Center and the community but I think the most important right now are getting our kids off the streets and into school, developing a health program, because like we said, some of these parents are dying from the most treatable diseases so health funds for the kids and their parents, and the program to help end child marriage. Internally it is really important for us to keep Nepali run and Nepali managed. So training as many Nepali locals as we can so that they can be as self sufficient as possible, and Ellen thank you for elaborating on that more. It is so important for us to not come in and be these foreign leaders, we want them to see themselves as leaders in their own community. So there is that, and of course women’s empowerment and protection in their communities. As always, bridging the gaps between the two ethnic groups we have in our community and at our center, super important!
For listeners, the best thing that you can do to help right now as we are still in the planning phases of so many of the things we are working on is just to join our online community and hear our stories and just be involved so that if help is needed help us spread the word is the best thing you can do to help us accomplish all of these dreams for these kids!
Vandana:
That is great! Thank you so much for taking the time to take part in our impact series podcast! We look forward to following all that Happy Kids Center accomplishes and the many developments to come!
Nicole:
Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity! It has been great talking to you!

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