Pushpa Basnet could not get the image of a young girl smiling, reaching out to her from behind a jail cell’s bars out of her mind.
The then-21-year-old saw the smiling child during a visit to a Nepalese jail while studying for her bachelor’s degree in social work. Nepalese law forces parents who face incarceration to choose between bringing their children along to prison or leaving them with a guardian.
“When I came back, I was thinking about her. It was in my mind,” Basnet said. “I wanted to help her.”
She soon founded the Early Childhood Development Center in 2005 in Kathmandu, Nepal to give children whose parents are incarcerated a place to avoid a life behind bars themselves. Basnet’s humanitarian work was recognized by CNN, which awarded her the title of CNN Hero in March.
Basnet will visit GW for a banquet May 1, held in her honor by the student organization Babies Behind Bars to commemorate her win.
As part of the planned festivities, GW students will sing the national anthem while members of the Nepali community will be sing theirs. GW Bhangra will also perform. Basnet will also give a presentation about her humanitarian work, which will be followed by the presentation of the CNN Hero video made in her honor. The $20 tickets sold for the celebration banquet will help fundraise for Basnet’s work in Nepal.
“Our first goal and purpose is of course, helping better the lives of children in Nepal by supporting the Early Childhood Center of Kathmandu,” Michael Franzi, chairman of the event planning committee said. “Not only does BBB help a great cause on the international level, making the world a smaller place, it also has given a group of mostly freshman college students the experience of working in a quasi-nonprofit organization, a status which we plan to file for this summer.”
In Nepal, Basnet wakes up at 5:30 a.m. with four staffers to care for more than more than 40 children whose parents are locked up.
“I don’t want them to suffer like their parents so that tomorrow they will have a better life,” Basnet said.
CNN heroes are nominated by an admirer during a rolling application process accessible on the media outlet’s website. In 2011 there were 24 heroes selected.
Basnet was selected as the fifth hero in 2012 in the second week of March. CNN created a video about her mission and center in Nepal and wrote an accompanying article.
Basnet said she has seen big changes in her children at an international and local level.
“The most important thing, more than me, is that the concept of the people has changed,” Basnet said, adding that as her children walk to school people recognize that they are from the center and ask “Oh, you are from CNN Heroes?”
Children at the center in Kathmandu make their beds, get ready and eat lunch by 9 a.m. – before their 11 a.m. dance classes – and spend afternoons hiking or playing outside, Basnet said, adding that her goal is to give children a chance to craft their lives outside of their parents’ constraints.
Babies Behind Bars, a student organization which she founded to raise money and support Basnet's work in Nepal, president freshman Sarah Freeman-Woolpert said she volunteered with Basnet’s organization for six weeks during her gap year in 2010, when she traveled to Nepal. She called the CNN Hero a "child at heart."
“I think that she does so well with the kids because she just has so much fun doing those things. She likes playing games with them and singing songs with them and making crafts,” Freeman-Woolpert said.
Freeman-Woolpert became the U.S. ambassador for the Early Childhood Development Center, trying to raise awareness for the center and it’s work, a role she continued at the University in fall 2011 by founding GW’s chapter of Babies Behind Bars.
She created the student organization as a way to support Basnet by selling handicrafts created by mothers imprisoned in Nepal and to raise awareness on campus in hopes of forging support and involvement with other organizations.
Basnet said earning the award was a “really big honor,” adding that it has given her children a sense of pride in the community and added a drive to her mission.
“I want to fulfill their dreams,” Basnet said.