DEL MAR — It’s been a decade since Martha Dudenhoeffer’s teenage children goaded her into doing some kind of volunteer work. After all, she had strongly encouraged them to do something to give back, which they did. Now, they had decided, it was her turn.
Although she was busy with her Del Mar-based landscape and gardening business, she contacted Cross Cultural Solutions, which has volunteer opportunities in 12 countries. They sent her for a stint in Peru at a prison in Ayacucho, a small mountain town between Lima and Cusco at 9,000 feet in the Andes.
“I originally thought I would go in there and plant a little garden for them,” she said chuckling at her own naivety.
She soon learned the women needed more than a “little garden.”
They were living in deplorable conditions, many with their children. The food was substandard and scarce; the bathrooms simply holes in the ground. Their standard of living was unimaginably dirt poor.
Most of the prisoners were convicted for being drug mules for the cartels. The impoverished women said they were willing to take the chance because they were so poor they struggled to provide even just the basics for their families. If caught they were given long sentences. If they were with a friend or family member when arrested, they said the two were considered a “cartel” by Peruvian law and given doubly long sentences. Although children can remain with their mothers until the age of 3, many of the women Dudenhoeffer met had family on the outside who desperately needed support. Some had children in higher education who needed computers and the other items to support their learning.
“I couldn’t leave these women,” she said. “They weren’t criminals. They just got a raw deal.
“Most were single and had children,” she said. “The cartels know who to look for.”
So, the women languish in prison while the cartels thrive, Dudenhoeffer said.
“At first I was incensed by the whole system,” she said. “Then I decided I had to make a plan to better these women.”
During her eye-opening visit, she noticed the women’s beautiful knitting, which gave her an idea.
Why not establish a cottage industry for the production and sale of their sweaters, scarves, pillows, table runners and toys fashioned from the ultra soft coats of baby alpaca?
Maki, International was established as a nonprofit entity. Maki means “hands” in Peru’s ancient indigenous language.
The women are paid immediately for their work and then the items are sent to the U.S. to sell. Dudenhoeffer’s friends from Del Mar snapped up the first items instantly. As the reputation of the knitters has grown, so have the sales of their handiwork.
Since the beginning of the organization the standard of living has risen for the women. Conditions at the prison were improved from one to three bathrooms for the 200 women, a shade was constructed where the women spend most of their time during the day, they are being paid fairly for their work and best of all, the women are learning skills that will help them when they leave prison.
Recently Dudenhoeffer and company completed a classroom where classes and events are held to empower the women, a place to learn skills to use on the outside.
“Most of all we give them hope,” she said.
Plus, she has helped outside the prison by uniting a group of battered women and teaching them to join the knitting team to sell their work. She has also given solar lamps to a village at 15,000 feet. The village had no light after sundown.
And she is working to buy a first rate alpaca stud to help another village elevate the quality of their herds by improving their material.
Also for another group, outside the prison, she has purchased laying chickens so that the residents can sell their eggs and run their own businesses.
It has not all been easy. She has stumbled over culture and tradition at times so she has found a group of locals to guide her on the sometimes tricky path. Dudenhoeffer visits at least twice a year and Skypes almost daily with her guides.
To learn more about Maki International and to see the handmade items available for purchase, visit makiwomen.org.