Mary Jane Henley is making masks and saving lives.
Whether you are a proponent of wearing masks or not, there’s no disputing the fact that Henley’s Tucson-based sewing project is impacting the destiny of impoverished Mayan children and families: In the past five months, her efforts have raised more than $9,000 to provide COVID-19 crisis relief efforts for Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala.
“More than $9,000 buys a lot of food, water, teaching materials and supplies in Guatemala,” said Henley, a volunteer and member of the board of directors for the nonprofit that was founded in Oregon by Frances Dixon about 30 years ago.
In partnership with the Fundación Para el Desarrollo Comunal de Huehuetenango, Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala promotes social justice for indigenous children in a remote rainforest in northwest Guatemala. The organization offers educational and agricultural programs designed to break the cycle of historic poverty in the region through the Maya Jaguar Center for Education and Development, which offers middle school and high school as well as residential housing and organic farming. Though the school has been closed temporarily during the COVID-19 crisis, the nonprofit’s services to the surrounding community have continued to expand.
“Early on when the pandemic started, the government in the region shut down roads and people couldn’t get food. Frances has taken it upon herself to have food delivered to spots where villagers can come and literally carry it out on their backs. Some villages also had storms cut out their water supplies, and Frances has helped them to get water. She and the teachers also created distance learning for students in their villages when they were forced to leave school,” said Henley.
The efforts are significant, considering that the international Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance III Project ranks Guatemala sixth globally — and the leader in the Western Hemisphere — for chronic childhood malnutrition. This reality impacts not only long-term physical growth and well-being for the children, but also impairs cognitive performance as well as behavioral, language and motor development. In addition, it weakens labor productivity and economic development, according to Elisabeth Brookover, a board member for Adopt-a-Village who is based in Chicago and visits Tucson frequently.
“In many countries in Central America, the people are so poor: Many don’t have adequate housing and if they do, they have no running water, electricity or internet service. Our residential school provides free room and board; no-cost education with advanced computer science training, modern technological equipment and internet access; and agricultural training in organic methods to alleviate the chronic malnutrition of food-deprived indigenous families, so it was a tragedy all around when the pandemic forced it to shut down,” said Brookover.
After shelter-at-home recommendations were implemented locally, Henley decided to do something to counteract COVID-19 on behalf of the students and families.
“My husband and I both have risk factors, so we were very rigid about sheltering. We couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, so I started looking for ways to occupy my time. I sew and enjoy art and lots of hobbies, and before masks were even a thing, I starting to try different patterns until I found one I liked. There were limited options for purchasing masks before the mandates, so in May, I decided to offer some on my Facebook page to anyone who would make a donation to Adopt-a-Village,” said Henley.
She quickly received $1,000 in donations from “generous friends who gave a lot of money” and then decided to take it a step further by incorporating handwoven Guatemalan textiles.
“I wanted to make them special and relate them to what we were doing through Adopt-a-Village, so I found a source through Etsy who was trying to raise money to send to weavers who work in Guatemala,” Henley said.
A subsequent Facebook post raised an additional $1,300 and orders snowballed after that. Henley makes all the masks herself, and is gratified for individual donors who are assisting with materials and helping get the word out. With advice from Dixon, Henley decided to request a minimum donation of $35 per mask; the masks are made-to-order and examples can be viewed on the Adopt-a-Village of Guatemala Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/adoptavillage. To receive a mask, you must send a request to AAVmasks@gmail.com.
“I never pictured myself as a production seamstress. I can’t believe how this has ballooned,” said Henley, a retired lawyer who initially became involved with Adopt-a-Village when she was asked to translate letters written by Maya Jaguar Center scholarship students to their benefactors. Henley has a long history of support for migrants: She has volunteered at several migrant local shelters and provided assistance with asylum applications for migrants in ICE detention centers.
“I heard these migrants’ stories and learned about the horrible conditions they came from and the horrible things they had been through. As an attorney, I learned it is very hard for them to get asylum, and that made me want to do something to help Central Americans to stay in their own countries. The wonderful thing about Adopt-a-Village is that its whole purpose is to educate young people and help villagers so they can become self-sufficient and make their lives better,” she said.
Dixon credits Henley’s creativity and drive for producing one of the most successful fundraising initiatives in the history of Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala.
“‘Fundraising’ really doesn’t say it all. By expressing the Mayan culture with the authentic textiles that she uses for the masks, supporters can appreciate the story of the indigenous people and their hundreds of years of poverty, suffering, and oppression. Mary Jane’s selfless efforts are keeping people safe during a global pandemic and providing desperately needed food and supplies for hundreds of struggling Mayans in northwestern Guatemala,” said Dixon in an email.
For her own part, Henley said the plight of the Mayans helps to keep things in perspective, reminding her that despite the problems, people in first world countries are very fortunate. She is also thankful for the opportunity to focus her attention and energy on others.
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