April 23, 2019
Nicole Heker had been literally been on the road for the past 406 days when she checked in at a “tree house hostel” on the southern coast of Turkey on Wednesday.
The 26-year-old from Princeton, New Jersey was excited for the chance to get a shower and some much-needed rest.
But first, she would take advantage of the opportunity to talk about why she was bicycling from Thailand to Spain, through “lush jungles, arid deserts and glorious mountains” along the ancient Silk Road.
Hers is a two-fold mission. On a personal level, she’s looking to see the world through fresh eyes, unlearning what she’s known along the way.
In a wider scope, the 6,000-plus-mile journey is designed to help raise attention and funds for an effort she and others have undertaken to help youths facing a world of child marriage, child labor and extreme poverty in Nepal.
Despite the far-off locales, the story has a number of ties to the Delaware Valley. It is also driven by happenstance and a level of idealism that lured a pair of local women overseas, fueled solely by a desire to make the world a better place.
“At first, my family didn’t get it. They were scared,” Heker said of her voyage during a conversation with PhillyVoice via Skype last week. “My mom, I think cried when I told her, and friends reached out asking, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s reckless. The world’s a dangerous place.’
“That made it more difficult for me since I was already scared, but they’ve all come around, and just been really amazingly supportive. They’re so proud and so excited, and they all love the Happy Kids Center.”
Located in Bhaktpur, Nepal, the Happy Kids Center is a community-based organization that aims to help children escape the harsh reality of life for a few hours each day and just be kids. Last year, some 60 children from 28 families benefitted from HKC's varied services.
It started as a small bamboo structure, filled with paints, toys and games. It was a small space for these street children to play two hours a day, but has evolved into much more in the years since an earthquake killed 9,000 and injured nearly 22,000 more in April 2015 in Nepal.
When Heker graduated from Penn State University that same year, she was questioning what her future might hold. She hearkened back to a sociology professor named Sam Richards who had quite an impact on the directions she’d go in the next few years.
On the last day of classes, students asked the professor for some big-picture advice, and that advice would be to “unlearn everything” that you know of your life and surroundings and venture out and rediscover the world.
"It is evidence that the world is bigger than Philadelphia, and people are kinder than we tend to believe." – Ellen Carney
She would move to southeastern Asia and teach English for a year in a “small, beautiful city” named Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. There, she would meet a French woman who was returning from volunteer work in Nepal.
Heker had been looking to help in that earthquake-ravaged land, but with many volunteers on the ground, “they didn’t really have a place where I could help.”
“What I did see were children of Indian migrants not being looked after. Kids were just begging in the street, ‘chocolate, chocolate; money, money; rice, rice,’” she said about what led her to discover the then-tiny Happy Kids Center. “One of the volunteers expressed great regret that she couldn’t be there full time to see it through.”
Soon, Heker would be the one who could be there full time to see it through, and she wouldn’t be alone.
“It was the most bold thing I’d ever done,” she recalled last week. “I’m not even sure if I knew what Thailand looked like on a map. … I wanted to change the world, but had no idea or a plan about how I would do it.”
The two had so many similarities that it’s surprising they didn’t know one another before. They would cross paths on an ex-pat excursion and stay in touch over subsequent months.
When Heker told Carney about what was happening in Nepal, she couldn’t help but join the effort.
“We were introduced to this population of children begging in the streets. It’s a population that was already struggling, but the earthquake made it exponentially worse,” said Carney, noting that working to “provide kids a safe space so they could forget the stresses of their lives, since they didn’t have normal childhoods” would become a calling.
Heker arrived in March 2016, with Carney joining the team three months later.
“When we first came to Nepal, we were 22, recent college grads and living our own independent lives,” said Carney, currently the center's managing director. “We were the optimists who saw the best in everyone, that there was a solution to everything. It’s not really being naïve, but having an optimistic outlook of creating change in a ‘volun-tourist’ way. I had no skills to bring except wanting to help people."
She would learn very quickly that this was a humbling challenge.
“I got knocked on my butt a few times because of the intensity of the situation, and the needs of the population. What I thought would be a three-month commitment became so much more because we saw we had so much more to do," she said. "But, in a very corny, hokey way, if you asked me in high school what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was this.”
In the years since, the Happy Kids Center has evolved from that bamboo hut.
Today, it offers a Meals4HKC program where donors can “sponsor a community meal day,” a Health Fund to help fill gaps in “Nepal’s broken health care system,” and – among other things – the Kanya String of Hope jewelry-making vocational program “for girls at risk of child marriage.”
“Since Nicole and I took over the organization in 2016, child labor rates have dropped from 56 percent of children in this community engaging in child labor to less than 10 percent, with no new children joining the workforce since 2016,” Carney shared of data available in HKC's annual report. “Education rates have also skyrocketed thanks to our programs, rising from only 42 percent of children being enrolled in school to more than 90 percent enrolled today.”
They have developed a child marriage prevention program, an incentive-based education sponsorship program and health and nutrition programs that have "changed the way our Happy Kids and their families live.”
Starting on International Women’s Day in 2018 was intentional.
“I was starting alone at the time, and terrified because of what people were saying to me,” she said. “But it was an empowering day. So many women have changed history just because they had to courage to start.”
She’s pedaled her way through Thailand, Laos, China, Mongolia, back into China, Krgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia (where she spent four winter months because “I can’t handle cold”) and into Turkey, where she is today.
She plans to hit the Balkans, Italy, France and Spain, where she once studied. It's a personally symbolic place to end her trip through 22 countries since she still has friends in Spain.
She’s been solo for much of the trip, but met up – and traveled – with a London-based travel and documentary photographer who is bicycling from India to England, and posting photos on a vibrant Instagram account along the way.
"We’re not stuck in our stories. Break out of them. Unlearn them, if you will. The world’s your oyster.” – Nicole Heker
She’s such a peculiarity that people at border crossings often take her pictures since they can’t quite wrap their heads around what she’s doing.
There have been a couple mishaps along the way, “but nothing major.” One that comes to mind is wiping out along “40 kilometers of swerving roads” after it had rained in China.
“I had a black eye for a few weeks from that one,” she said.
Fundraising hasn’t exactly been easy along the way – they have a goal of $12,000 – but a video recently posted by Unilad about her mission helped draw awareness to her trip, which raised roughly $4,600 last year, and the Happy Kids Center. (You can see that video via this link.)
“I have a website, but I don’t put up posts as often as I should,” she said. “Once a month, I’ll do a live video on Facebook, talking about why you should donate, what’s so special about Happy Kids Center and play a song on my ukulele.”
Though initially frightened for her daughter’s safety, Heker’s mother Ronit James said she couldn’t be more proud of what she’s accomplished.
In an ironic sense, she lived in Nepal when she was younger; her parents worked in a diplomatic capacity and her mother helped refugees from India to that nation as well.
“Even as a child, Nicole was a giving child. Anytime she saw someone living in the streets, she demanded I take them home. Full circle. Out of the blue that she told me she was going to Nepal herself,” James said. “I’m just in awe of her bike ride and what she and Ellen are accomplishing. She’s a magnet, this kid.”
Heker expects to reach Spain by mid-August, head home for a bit and then return to Nepal. When she does, Carney will return to the Delaware Valley.
“I’m at a turning point with this now. It’s been three years straight in the field,” Carney said. “When Nicole finishes her bike ride, I’ll be going home, and try to increase funding and reach.
"We’ve been successful in reaching our goals so far, but that would give us more reach. There’s more I can do from the U.S. I don’t know what that looks like now, though, since I never had a real job.”
For the next few months, she’ll continue training new employees and “tying up loose ends.” This meshes with their ultimate goal of having “all things done on the ground sustained locally.”
She’ll be buoyed by the ability to help a child named Krishna with an eye disease who would have been blind within five years without intervention. Then, they facilitated the laser-eye surgery he needed.
“That would have meant a life of begging, of alcoholism,” she said. “The surgery to save his vision was $90. It was nothing. Something I realized when I got to Thailand and Nepal, I saw the social impact of how easy it can be to make a change in someone’s life. Is that corny?”
She hearkened back to her high school days, where at Abington Friends, students were required to fulfill 10 hours of community service.
“For me, that was what changed my outlook on life. That’s what I want people at home to understand, how far a little effort can go,” said Carney. “As much as I love Philadelphia and all of my friends and family back home, as a people we tend to be a bit cynical in the way we look at the world.
“Nicole's journey will appeal to even the most cynical of Philadelphians. She is just your normal girl from Philly who decided one day to hop on a bike and ride across the world to fundraise for an important cause. It is evidence that the world is bigger than Philadelphia, and people are kinder than we tend to believe.”
Heker echoed that sentiment when she was asked what she hopes locals in her hometown will take from her efforts.
“It’s about not holding yourself back. We’re so trapped by our stories, by society’s stories,” she said from the tree-house hostel in Turkey. “Well, we’re not stuck in our stories. Break out of them. Unlearn them, if you will. The world’s your oyster.”