Sarah Freeman-Woolpert: Taking a Gap Year, Nepal, and Babies Behind Bars

14 Oct

Sarah Freeman-Woolpert and children of the ECDC

The following post was written by UHP freshman Sarah Freeman-Woolpert. If you’re interested in Babies Behind Bars, the group will hold their first general body meeting on Tuesday, October 18, at 7:30 pm at the couches on the fourth floor of the Marvin Center. 

When I got my acceptance letter from GW in 2010, I already knew I wasn’t going to hold a spot in the Class of 2014. With a vague goal of “finding myself,” I chose to take a gap year. I didn’t have a concrete plan, but knew I needed to leave my small town in New Hampshire and see the world from a different angle.

I formed a plan to spend three months backpacking through Nepal and India. The first six weeks of my trip were spent living in Kathmandu. There I stumbled upon an organization called The Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC). ECDC rescues children living in prison with their incarcerated mothers without access to education, adequate nutrition, or protection from the violence and squalor of the jail cells. A Nepali woman named Pushpa started ECDC to provide safe place for these children—a residential home where they are enrolled in a local school, and a separate kindergarten program for children who are too young to live apart from their mothers.

For 6 weeks, I threw myself into this organization. The children of ECDC became a constant source of reassurance and comfort during the doubt and culture shock I often experienced in Nepal. Every morning I walked with the kindergarten teachers to pick up the youngest kids at the local prison. We carried as many of them through the streets as we could; the others held our hands as we weaved in and out of  traffic. After several weeks, the children would call “Good morning Sarah Auntie!” and jump into my lap. They immediately accepted me into their hearts and their lives despite our language barrier and my awkwardness in such a foreign environment. Their unquestioning ability to love me resonated in my heart and, ultimately, changed everything.

When the toddlers went back to prison in the afternoon, I rode to the residential home on the outskirts of town, where the 35 older children would be returning from school. I spent afternoons and nights reading books with them, helping with algebra problems and teaching the kids to make friendship bracelets with string I brought from home. I stayed up late with the older girls, many of whom told me of their lives in prison or laboring to support their younger siblings when their mother went to jail. Some were orphans, others had narrowly escaped trafficking. I developed a bond with these girls; their patience and courage made me question all the problems I thought existed in my life. When my departure date loomed near, the girls couldn’t meet my eyes and whispered, “Don’t forget about me, okay?” I had become completely attached and was unable to accept that I now had to return home and pretend nothing inside me had changed.

Pushpa must have understood this as well, because one day she pulled me aside and told me ECDC’s Board of Directors had elected me their US Ambassador. In an instant, I became their Western representative and assumed all the responsibilities that entailed. This position (and, to my utter bewilderment, the 2,000 business cards reading “Sarah Freeman-Woolpert, US Ambassador” with which they presented me) transformed this experience into something greater than a few weeks of volunteering. When I started as a freshman in August, I founded Babies Behind Bars, a student organization to raise money and awareness for ECDC and act as an educational resource for students interested in working in the non-profit sector.

On my first Friday night at GW, I took my laptop into the hallway of Thurston and Skyped the children from outside my room. They had just recovered from the chicken pox and told me their exams were coming up. Five-year-old Durga appeared on the computer screen wearing a headset and singing a nursery rhyme to me in Nepali. I can imagine how strange it appeared to everyone walking through the halls as they passed me Skyping in broken Nepali phrases, half laughing, half crying through this magical window into the other half of my world.

I hope Babies Behind Bars can start changing the perceptions we hold of international human rights issues and people from developing countries. They are not just “starving children” for us to pity. This mentality oversimplifies and detaches us from the reality—that these are real, complex human beings, not mere statistics.

The memory I constantly return to is how happy all the children are despite the hardships and tragedies they’ve experienced. Rather than feeling sorry for themselves, they exude joy and curiosity. They do not realize how tragic their lives seem from our eyes; their spirit and resilience inspires me to improve their situation however I can so they don’t have to accept imprisonment and injustice as their reality.

(Full story at


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