A Life That Shines

BeadforLife gives impoverished women a chance to turn their colorful art into a brighter future
By Erica Tasto

On the steps outside of her mud home on the dusty streets of a Ugandan slum, Millie Grace Akena dutifully worked under the blistering sun, rolling small paper strips into colorful beads. A few people on their way to visit a friend became intrigued by Millie’s alluring craft and stopped to talk to her. This chance encounter would mark the beginning of many changed lives.

BeadforLife cofounders Devin Hibbard, her mother Torkin Wakefield, and their family friend Ginny Jordan spoke with Millie and learned that crime and violence had driven her from her home in northern Uganda. Fearing for her six children, Millie fled to the Kampala slum where she worked in a rock quarry for less than a dollar a day.

“Millie told us she had learned to roll paper into beads to make jewelry, but that she had no market for them,” Devin recalls. “She brought out a whole bag of jewelry but said that she couldn’t support her family selling beads.”

Touched by Millie’s story, Devin, Torkin, and Ginny purchased some of her necklaces and proudly wore them around Kampala. Soon neighbors began asking where they could buy the beautiful paper jewelry, and the women wondered why Millie had no market for her craft. They returned to her, organized a meeting with all the bead-making women in the community, purchased an assortment of jewelry, and brought it back to the US to see how it would fare in an American market.

“What we found was that people liked the beads, but what they really loved was the story of these incredible, hardworking Ugandan women who were doing whatever they could to support their children and create a brighter future,” says Devin. “That was the genesis for BeadforLife.”

The trio launched the nonprofit organization BeadforLife in September 2004. The following year, Devin met Mary Naiga, a mother of four who earned 30 cents a day washing her neighbors’ laundry before entering the BeadforLife program. Although Mary suffers from HIV, she refused treatment—despite having free access to AIDS medication—because she heard the drugs would increase her appetite, and she was already unable to feed her children. The first time she earned money from her beads, she bought meat for her children to eat.

The 18-month program begins with a selection process to find women who not only live in extreme poverty, but are motivated to change their lives. Once in the program, members enjoy a steady source of income. With the ability to eat more nutritious foods, receive better healthcare, and enroll their children in school, many women develop skills that prepare them to open their own business after graduating from the program so they can continue their improved lifestyle.

“I had one basin which I used for washing and bathing,” Mary reflects. “After my life changed, I kept the basin as a remembrance of where I was.” Mary now eats three meals a day and is able to take her medication.

BeadforLife members craft their beads from local recycled paper then treat them with an eco-friendly sealant before hanging them in the sun to dry. In addition to creating a market for their jewelry, the company works with women who harvest shea nuts and processes the nuts into beauty products. They also partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build the 132-home Friendship Village near Kampala.

“A big part of what we do is creating opportunities for women to see that they are smart and capable, to hear stories of other women like them who have succeeded, and to walk beside them as a friend and mentor as they take the steps necessary to support their families now and into the future,” says Devin.

After graduating from the program, Mary used her savings to buy chickens, goats, and a plot of land on which she grows crops to eat and sell. Nearly 91 percent of BeadforLife members follow a similar path and start a business while in the program. All of Mary’s children are now in school, and she is a proud owner of a three-room brick home.

“I always wanted a home of my own,” says Mary. “When we were told we would build houses, I thought it was a dream.”

Read other inspiring stories and learn more about BeadforLife—including where to purchase jewelry, how to make a donation, and how to host your own bead party—at beadforlife.org.