By Claire Harlin
In the Andes Mountain of Ayacucho, Peru, lies a prison that is home to more than 200 impoverished women. Some live there with their young children, most are doing time for transporting drugs for minimal pay and all of them have something in common — Martha Dudenhoeffer Kolodny means the world to them.
Since 2008, the Del Mar resident has been visiting the community of women every few months to monitor not only their well-being, but the success of a business plan of sorts that she came up with on a volunteer trip in hopes of making things better for them. She is the creator of MAKI International, under which she sells the Peruvian women’s handcrafted textiles to bring in money for them. The organization sells products such as scarves, bags and yoga mat straps locally and on the website www.makiwomen.org, and she has thus far raised enough money to install two flushing toilets — to take the place of holes in the floor — in the prison.
Kolodny’s efforts started when she visited Ayacucho with a volunteer organization called Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). Her daughters, 23-year-old Carina and 26-year-old Lauren, had both volunteered abroad at an early age and urged her to take the trip.
“I’ve really encouraged my kids to do things abroad,” said Kolodney, adding that Carina went to Cuba at the age of 15 and Lauren flew to Peru by herself with CCS when she was only 17. “One day they said ‘Mom, you keep encouraging us to do this, so why don’t you do this? We’re doing an intervention. You are calling Cross Cultural Solutions and booking a trip before we go back to school.’”
Kolodny was interested in visiting Africa, but chose Peru because she speaks Spanish — a skill she has picked up via running a local landscaping business and communicating with the Spanish-speaking gardeners.
CCS assigned Kolodny to work in a local prison in Ayacucho — an area that’s still feeling the effects of a guerrilla insurgency conflict that resulted in the deaths of thousands in the 1980s. She said she made an instant connection with the inmates from day one.
“I was anticipating something a little scarier, but it struck me how these women were pretty normal,” she said. “Talking to these women, I didn’t feel any different than if I was talking to my friends in Del Mar.”
Kolodny said she was saddened to see that the women were given no more than a blanket and substandard food, and she empathized with them.
“They did something illegal, but they were also very, very poor single moms,” she said. “They made the wrong decisions but for the right reasons.”
Kolodny said she felt compelled to make things better for these women.
“When I first went there the whole injustice of it was burning inside me. Then it was like, ‘Well, what can I do?’ I’m not an attorney. It’s not like I can go fight the whole Peruvian system.”