It was a Saturday afternoon and Katie Brown was in her apartment, doing her makeup, about to meet a friend for lunch. It was like many other weekends Brown spent at her home in Mt. Lebanon—only she wasn’t at home. She was more than 7,000 miles away in Nepal, and something terrible was about to happen.
On April 25, Brown was on the third floor in her building. The violent shaking knocked her from her chair. When she hit the floor, she crawled over to a doorframe as her possessions flew to the ground, the windows blew out and debris rained down around her. When the magnitude 7.8 quake ended, Brown fled the building and joined the mass of people flooding the street.
“It was total chaos. Everybody was running away from the buildings. In the middle of the city, there aren’t open spaces or public parks. Everyone was trying to find even a little open space to find refuge. A couple hundred of people squeezed into an empty lot. People were frantically searching for friends and family.”
The earthquake claimed more than 9,000 dead and injured more than 23,000. It was the worst natural disaster in Nepal since a 1934 earthquake.
Brown spent that night under a tarp. The U.S. Government offered free flights home, but Brown decided to stay for five more weeks. “Staying just kind of felt natural and I felt like if I had come home earlier, there were so many people I cared about there… the kids and my friends, that if I came home I would have been a complete wreck.”
Brown took her first trip to Nepal three years ago and has returned three more times to volunteer. After she graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 2014 Brown, now 19, chose to work with Prisoners Assistance Nepal. During her first trip she noticed how different Nepal was from the States.
“When I first got there, I noticed right away how different life is,” Brown says. “People don’t have clean running water from their pipes … nobody has 24-hour power. People are much more adaptive to difficult circumstances.”
Brown also noticed a difference in the way people live and grow within their families.
“Here, the basic building block is the individual. You go to high school, pick a college, start your career,” Brown says. “In Nepal you are part of a family unit your entire life. Decisions are made on a group basis but you also have a group support system.”
In Nepal, Brown explains, when a woman is sentenced to prison, her children share the sentence with their mother. Members of PA Nepal work to rescue the children from prison and then house, feed and educate them in a safe environment. The nonprofit also works with the mothers after they leave the prison system by helping them integrate back into pedestrian life and motherhood.
Before the April earthquake, Brown worked in the PA Nepal office coordinating social media and writing press releases. Most weekends she would visit with the children. They’d meet in an open space near the office building to kick around a soccer ball. When the earthquake hit, Katie and the children took refuge in that open space.
During her remaining weeks in Nepal Brown worked with other PA Nepal members gathering food, clean water and medical supplies. “I was expecting the West and Americans and foreigners to come in and save these people, but the incredible sense of family and community that extends beyond bloodlines is what really got everyone back on their feet.”
Brown will attend Northwestern University this fall where she will major in Economics. She plans to go into the nonprofit sector after she graduates and continue to work in underdeveloped countries.
“I have so much confidence in humanity now…in how people can unite and respond in the face of adversity.”