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.”
She considered using her landscaping skills to help the women start a community garden, but changed her mind when she took note of their incredible embroidery and knitting skills.
“When I saw them knitting, I began trying to think of something they could knit that my friends in Del Mar would buy,” she said.
Kolodny began buying the women high-quality yarn, and bringing crafts like stuffed animals and scarves back to sell. The knitted pieces have raised enough to install toilets in the prison, and now Kolodny has begun thinking about the women’s future after incarceration and implementing educational programs that focus on art, reading and writing.
“We are trying to equip them with some skills so they don’t have to go back to the drug trade,” she said, adding that her work in Ayacucho has made her more aware of daunting global societal problems.
“It’s just so overwhelming sometimes, but it’s what I can handle, especially with my landscaping business,” she said. “What I’m doing is so small. It’s a tiny drop in the bucket. But my daughters tells me, ‘It may not be much globally, but you mean the world to these women.’”
MAKI is embarking on a new line of vibrant, hand-embroidered yoga mat straps that could be a hit in yoga-centric North County San Diego. To shop for MAKI accessories or learn more about MAKI, visit www.makiwomen.org.