When Pushpa Basnet, 29, visited a Nepali prison as a social work student she knew she had to act fast.
"I saw a small 8-month-old child. I could not forget her and decided to do something. These children suffer for the crimes of their parents," Basnet told the Press Trust of India.
Basnet was referring to Nepali children who live in prison with their incarcerated mothers. Without proper guardians, this is a common fate for children whose parents go to jail, according to CNN.com.
In 2005, Basnet started a home in Kathmandu to support children with incarcerated parents. On Sunday night, she was named 2012 CNN Hero of the Year for her work.
Basnet’s nomination came after a nine-week public vote held on CNN. As Hero of the Year she will receive $300,000 to continue her work and specialized training from the Annenberg Foundation, according to CNN.com.
Her home helps 140 children receive education and medical care, according to the news outlet. She also runs a daycare program for children under 6 years old who are too young to be separated from their parents.
Basnet’s organization, the Early Childhood Development Center, partners with local jail authorities to rescue children from prison, according to the organization’s website. But none of the children leave without their parents’ consent. Basnet travels to prisons throughout the country and meets with incarcerated mothers and their children. She explains to each mother what she can provide. If the mother agrees, Basnet takes the child back with her, she told CNN.
But Basnet makes sure the children visit their parents on school holidays and bring food, water and clothes when they do, according to CNN.com. Basnet has reunited 60 children with their mothers after being released, according to the news outlet.
At the Butterfly Home -- the residential home where the children live -- children receive regular medical check-ups, vaccinations and attend the local private school, according to the organization’s website.
But Basnet’s doesn’t run an institution, it’s a home. Older children take care of the younger ones and everyone pitches in with household chores, CNN reports. The children may be separated from their mothers but Basnet does her best to fill the void. They call her “Mamu” which means “Mommy” in Nepali.
"I don't ever get a day off, but if I [didn't] have the children around me, it would be hard," she told CNN.com. "When I'm with them, I'm happy."
Since her initial nomination as CNN Hero, Basnet’s organization has received a lot of attention, she told gulfnews.com pointing to the influx of cash and in-kind donations. “I was overwhelmed when a vegetable vendor offered me a kilogram of tomatoes for free for the sake of my children. It is happening too fast and I am trying to take it in slowly,” she told the news outlet.
Imprisoned mothers like Kum Maya Tamang are grateful for Basnet’s work.
"If Pushpa wasn't around, (they) could have never gotten an education ... (they) would have probably had to live on the streets," she told CNN.com. "I feel she treats (them) the way I would."
According to figures from the World Bank, only 24 percent of secondary school-aged children are enrolled.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world -- 55 percent live below the international poverty line and the nation ranks 157th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, according to the World Bank. An estimated 80 children live in the nation's prisons, according to Nepal's Department of Prison Management.
Basnet is determined to fight the odds of her poverty-stricken country to fulfill her children’s dreams. Upon receiving the Hero of the Year award at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Basnet spoke directly to the children she helps:
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