Nicole Heker, 26, recently wrapped a 507-day, 6,351-mile solo journey on two wheels from the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai to the southern Portuguese city of Lagos. The Princeton, N.J., native pedaled on paved highways, gravel roads, dirt trails, and horse paths. She pushed her bicycle through sand and up and down steep steppes. And, for a few miles here and there, she hitched rides with friendly strangers or was given rides by silent security officers.
“If you had told me when I was 17 or 18 that one day I would be riding a bicycle across the world, I’d have said there was no possible way. I’d never even owned a bike before this trip,” Heker said during an interview conducted via WhatsApp as she decompressed in Portugal.
The trip was in part about “unlearning,” the idea that you should forget what you think you know, putting aside cultural myths and societal expectations. That advice, which Heker picked up from one of her professors at Penn State University, is what inspired her to move to Thailand to teach English after her 2015 graduation.
It was also a fund-raising mission for Happy Kids Center, a nonprofit based in Bhaktapur, Nepal, for which Heker is director of development. Its managing director is Ellen Carney, also a 26-year-old from the Philadelphia region who had been teaching English in Bangkok when she and Heker met.
“Nicole and I always say that we’re weirdly the same person,” said Carney, 26, who is back in the United States. ”It’s all happened very fluidly. We work together so easily.”
Both women had been looking for ways to help Nepal after it was struck by back-to-back earthquakes in April and May 2015 that had killed almost 9,000 people, injured more than 20,000 others, and crushed infrastructure throughout the country.
So Heker was thrilled when she heard about Happy Kids Center. Founded by three foreigners, the organization was a place for local children to play after hours spent begging or sifting through trash piles looking for items to resell.
“Nicole put something on Facebook about it, and said she was going there to see what was going on,” Carney said. “I decided to go with her.”
Heker and Carney were both 22 when they arrived in Bhaktapur in 2016. The Happy Kids Center was a semipermanent bamboo structure with a limited mission. The children had rough lives, and it showed in their thin frames, glassy eyes, and dripping noses.
“These kids in this community are special and resilient and so vibrant and different from everything and everyone I’ve ever known,” Heker said. “It was the first time I understood what that professor meant by unlearning. It was total unfamiliarity in the extreme.”
The two women developed “EducateHKC” to take kids off the streets and put them into classrooms. The program gives students a stipend for every day they show up for school and additional money for things like doing their homework and keeping their uniforms clean. The stipend, not including a free lunch, works out to about $0.30 to $0.50 a day, about what the kids made by begging and rummaging through trash.
Nearly half of the girls in this region marry before age 18 to lessen their families’ financial burdens. Happy Kids Center introduced “Kanya: String of Hope,” which trains girls ages 11 to 16 to make string jewelry that is then resold. Half of the income each girl earns is given to her and her family each month, eliminating the economic need for early marriages. Then 25% goes into an account the girls can access at year’s end, and the final 25% is held in trust and given to the girls if they reach age 18 without marrying. Happy Kids Center matches the amount in that last fund.
With these programs and others, Happy Kids Center is thriving, regularly providing services to about 80 children who now have nutritious meals, free medical screenings, and access to health care. The bamboo structure that once served as a simple play space has been replaced by a permanent, solar-powered, waterproof building. Carney noted in the center’s 2018 annual report that all of the children they had worked with were no longer begging.
Heker and Carney found a way to divide the work at Happy Kids Center so only one of them needed to be in Nepal at any given time. When Heker took her solo bike ride, she decided to combine it with a fund-raiser for the center.
“I still wanted to be contributing, and I had a platform that I’d never had before,” Heker said. “This was an easy way to raise awareness for people back home who couldn’t find Nepal on a map.”
Her goal: to raise at least $12,000, which was roughly the center’s annual budget.
She self-financed her trip, taking camping equipment, a bike emergency repair kit, some clothes, a cell phone, a Kindle — and a ukulele because “it just made me happy.”
There were scenic rides in temperate climes and challenging slogs 16,000 feet above sea level through snow and wind. Some rides left her sore for days. She lost count of how many times she cried.
“There were so many times that if I’d had an exit button, I would have pushed it,” Heker said. “There are moments that made me feel tiny, but also so resilient and strong and capable.”
There were also scares, like when she reached Tajikistan shortly after four cyclists, including two Americans, were killed by armed Islamic State attackers. She spent four or five days on high alert while biking along the Afghan border. She was camped in Bosnia when a flash flood woke her up. Water filled her tent and reached her calves before her inner voice told her to move, and quickly.
But the good experiences outweighed the bad. Heker took part in a ceremony in Mongolia that featured a shaman channeling a 14th century warlord. She heard Laotian children greeting her with the traditional welcome, “Sa-Bai-Dee” when she rode by. She met other bikers, who have become her lifelong friends. And she was welcomed into countless strangers’ homes for food and drink and for conversation via charades and Google Translate.
“That’s life on a bike,” she said. “You end up in these situations and you look around and say, ‘How did I get here?’”
She fell short of her fund-raising goal, but she and Carney are in the United States this fall to raise awareness for Happy Kids Center before Heker returns to Nepal in November.
“Ellen and I have been on such a journey together. We are now making an impact on the level of poverty there,” Heker said. “I’m excited to go back to see how our new employees are doing and check on our resources and hang out with the kids. I miss them like crazy.”
To donate to the Happy Kids Center, click here.