Oct. 3, 2013
Hima lives in the Kopila Valley in western Nepal, in a village called Surkhet. As a six-year-old, she was the primary caretaker for her mother and three younger brothers, working all day breaking rocks for a gravel company to earn income and digging through garbage cans so she could feed her family. Being a widow, Hima's mother is a cultural outcast, literally forbidden to do any work that would allow her to support her four small children. Despite the fact that young Hima has taken on the responsibility of an adult, the fact that she is female prevents her from being viewed as anything but a liability by the men of her village.
As is the case in many of the world's developing nations, Nepal is bound by a class system where patriarchy is the norm and the gender gap is wide. The ontological superiority of males at the expense of females is a de facto ideology easily handed down from one generation to the next. Abject poverty creates and sustains the cyclic conditions under which girls like Hima are seen solely in terms of financial burden by their families. The only hope is that they will get married and become someone else's mouth to feed.
Thus the enormous social and economic pressure placed on young girls to conform to the acceptable standard. Although it's technically illegal, most girls are given by their fathers in arranged marriages at age 14 or 15. One misstep could result in cultural taboo, jeopardizing a girl's chance at marriage and ultimately increasing the onus she places upon her family.
"We need to empower girls if we're ever going to stop global poverty."
Lindsay Brown ('13), a political science graduate from Newport Beach, Calif., is familiar with power. Her profile on the Notre Dame women's soccer website describes her as a "crafty and cerebral attacking player, strong with either foot which makes her a weapon on set pieces." She's met former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, been a personally invited guest of former President Bill Clinton at his Clinton Global Initiative summit, and spent time at the United Nations. Her closest friends from Notre Dame are working now for Fortune 500 companies in Chicago and New York.
But Lindsay knows a different side of power, one that, ironically, is rooted in powerlessness. It all started with a cupcake...
Beginnings - Baked Goods and Babysitting, Bricks and Bamboo
As a student at Notre Dame, Lindsay and several of her friends in Welsh Family Hall developed a plan in the fall of 2010 to raise money so that together they could sponsor a child. Initially hoping that three separate bake sales would generate the necessary $200, the ladies of Welsh Fam were overwhelmed when they took in more than $400 in just two hours.
Recalling their reaction to the delightful underestimation, Lindsay said, "There was no excuse for us not to be doing this. We all have so much, and we're so fortunate to be here at Notre Dame." Through an organization called She's the First, a New York-based non-profit that champions girls' education in impoverished countries, Lindsay and her friends were able to connect with a little girl in Nepal named Hima...
Back up five years. Maggie Doyne had just graduated from high school in New Jersey and was setting off for a trip around the world. As she trekked through war-torn Nepal, she fell in love with the orphan children she met in the western valleys. The $5000 she had saved up from babysitting back home allowed her to open the Kopila Valley Children's Home, which she and the villagers of Surkhet built brick-by-brick together in 2006. Maggie became mother to 40 children.
In 2010, the Kopila Valley Primary School opened its doors to more than 300 students from surrounding regions. Nepali neighbors harvested bamboo to build the school, which was financed by donations from Maggie's friends and family in New Jersey, and endorsed by She's the First.
Hima's life began to change...
Family - Notre Dame, Newport Beach, Nepal
Reaching out to her soccer teammates at Notre Dame, Lindsay expanded on the initial Welsh Family bake-sale success and together they sponsored several more girls through She's the First. "We had this idea that we'd pick girls from all different countries, but Maggie's story was just so amazing and we fell in love with Hima, so we decided that we'd just try to send as many girls to the Kopila Valley School as possible," says Lindsay.
Through the miracle of the Internet, the school girls in Nepal were able to follow the Irish women's soccer team in their 2010 NCAA tournament run. The day after the Irish took the national title, the girls they sponsored sent a congratulatory email from their school, with pictures of them holding up a tattered soccer ball. "That's when I learned that they didn't have a girls' soccer team," Lindsay recounts, "that girls weren't even allowed to play. I made my decision that day that I was going to Nepal the following summer."
The University of Notre Dame awarded Lindsay a Kellogg Institute "Experiencing the World" Fellowship to cover the cost of her trip, but when the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Nepal, only three weeks before she was set to depart, the University was forced to withdraw the funds.
Emergency bake sales notwithstanding, Lindsay's grandmother stepped right up and offered to pay for the whole trip, rather than watch Lindsay put it off or cancel entirely. "My grandma is from Puerto Rico," Lindsay shares. "She was the first in her family to complete 8th grade, and then she actually got her nursing degree which allowed her to move to the States with my mom and raise five kids."
Remember that other side of power? Grandma's life was the first place Lindsay saw it. Education was the key that turned powerlessness and poverty into potency and potential. One cycle was broken and a new one emerged. Lindsay's mom earned a degree in occupational therapy and works at USC. Lindsay is a Notre Dame grad.
"My grandma would always remind me, they can take away your clothes and your car and things like that, but they can't take away your education. These girls in Nepal didn't have clothes, they didn't have anything, but they could get an education. My grandma believed in what I was going over there to do."
She went over and did it.
Living in the Children's Home, working in the Primary School, she taught herself the language, befriended the students, built relationships with their families. Met Hima.
Success - Soccer, SEGway, Seventeen
"I thought originally that if you put a girl in a soccer uniform, everything would just magically be OK," Lindsay admits of her early naïveté. "These fathers are so fearful of their daughters doing something un-ladylike - soccer falls into that category - and ruining their chances of getting married. The boys all echo the attitudes they saw their dads holding. They'd talk over the girls in class, call them stupid and weak, there was just no expectation of them to be respectful at all."
But Lindsay was patient. And polite. She earned the families' trust, and they began to negotiate. "I had to show them that allowing their daughters to play soccer could actually be a huge financial benefit," Lindsay explains of her methodology. "It seems horrible to talk about your children that way, but it's just the reality. We helped them see that girls are capable of bringing just as much economic success as boys are. It starts with soccer..."
Anyone who plays sports knows the benefits of teamwork, the rush of adrenaline, the self-confidence that comes from developing skills. Take those benefits to the "nth" degree for girls who have never known anything but derision and isolation. Slowly, they start to believe in their own abilities, their own worth. They form bonds with other girls. They dare to stand up for themselves in class. Attitudes change. A culture shifts.
Thus was born The SEGway Project: Soccer Empowering Girls Worldwide and You, Lindsay's own non-profit organization. She extended that first incredible trip from five weeks to eight in order to keep advocating for change, to keep encouraging the girls and their parents, to keep pouring hope and love into their lives. Remaining in Nepal meant she was not at conditioning camp when her soccer teammates returned to Notre Dame after their summer vacations. So she forfeited her final year of eligibility, and her full scholarship.
Learning of the "Pretty Amazing" contest sponsored by Seventeen magazine, Lindsay entered and won. The $20,000 grand prize was enough to cover tuition for her senior year, and the cover girl found her story and her Project distributed to 13 million readers.
By the end of that first summer, 40 girls from Surkhet were playing soccer. When they beat the boys' team 6-0, the moms and dads and brothers were all cheering wildly. "Our girls are so strong, we're so proud of our girls!" Talk about waking up the echoes...
The Power of Empowerment
Fast forward to the present. The Kopila Valley School now has two girls' soccer teams with 25 members each. A girls' soccer team from Kenya will be competing in a Cup event here in the States next year. Plans are underway for a SEGway Project in Cambodia.
Brown has expanded her vision from dormitory bake sale to international advocacy: she attended an event in July at the United Nations with others who are using sports as an avenue to promote educational opportunities for girls worldwide. She was one of five, the only female, to take the stage at the Clinton Global Initiative in April. "The rest were engineering projects," Brown relates, "so mine - that soccer is empowerment - was definitely seen as abstract compared to things like building a well."
But the SEGway Project results have been concrete, solid as the rocks Hima used to break. Now a thriving, confident young lady, Hima is working her way through fourth grade, a leader on the soccer field and off.
The entire culture of her village has shifted - girls and women now have the respect of their fathers and husbands and brothers. They are emerging on a level playing field and claiming their place in a community that now sees its women as a powerful force for change.
All thanks to Lindsay Brown - athlete, advocate, architect for a sustainable initiative that is breaking the cycle of poverty, "one cupcake at a time."