How a sewing machine and hair accessories are reversing the course for girls’ education in Africa

How a sewing machine and hair accessories are reversing the course for girls’ education in Africa

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Mary Grace and three high school girls who live in Hekima Place in Kenya, 2014. Photo credit: Sadé Clacken Joseph

Mary Grace and three high school girls who live in Hekima Place in Kenya, 2014. Photo credit: Sadé Clacken Joseph

What started off as a project to help finance a Ugandan girl’s school fees, has turned into a movement to “reverse the course” for girls’ education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For six years #ONEderWoman Mary Grace Henry has used her sewing machine to create headbands, from which profits go entirely towards funding girls’ education in Uganda and Kenya. But, Mary Grace doesn’t just want to help girls go to school; she knows that quality education is a long-term commitment, and to make a real impact, the girls have to be able to stay in school.

Dedicating herself to the cause, Mary Grace started Reverse the Course at just twelve years old. Mary Grace believes that quality education has the ability to “reverse the course” of a girl’s life by providing her with an opportunity to succeed, break the cycle of poverty, and transform entire communities.

Since its founding, Reverse the Course has sold nearly 16,000 hair accessory products, sponsored 66 girls, and is paying for 154 years’ worth of educational needs, including textbooks, uniforms, and boarding costs.

Wanting to know more about how a sewing machine and a headband are changing the world, I asked Mary Grace—an incoming college freshman at the University of Notre Dame—a few questions about her organization and the impact she’s making on the other side of the world.

Mary Grace with Stella and Teddy, two girls attending Bishops secondary school in Uganda, 2014. Photo credit: Sadé Clacken Joseph

Mary Grace with Stella and Teddy, two girls attending Bishops secondary school in Uganda, 2014. Photo credit: Sadé Clacken Joseph

What motivated you to start Reverse the Course?

It was a combination of my home and school environments that motivated me to start Reverse The Course. At home, my mom was never a “how was your day?” type of person. Instead, she would pull out a Popular Science magazine and say, “how would you make this better?” or “how does this work?” That innovative spirit was the atmosphere of my home life, and at school, there was an active focus on genuine community service. Reverse the Course is the product of both of those influences.

Having made such an incredible impact so far, what are your hopes for Reverse the Course in the future?

On the business side, I’d like to work with a retail partner and create one product so I can reach a wider audience and have a larger impact while ensuring I can continue to fund the organization. I have two ideas and I’m hoping to find the right retail partner who also believes in the mission of universal quality education for girls!

On the foundation side, my most immediate goal is to support 100 girls. My second goal is to develop entrepreneurial programming for the girls we fund. There are few jobs even for college grads, and I firmly believe providing financial literacy and entrepreneurial skill sets will be valuable tools for our students.

Students at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, 2014. Photo credit: Mary Grace Henry

Students at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, 2014. Photo credit: Mary Grace Henry

Have you had the chance to meet any of the girls you have supported? What was that experience like?

I’ve been to Africa 3 times since 2011 and I’ve met most of our students at least once. When I first visit new students, I make sure to ask lots of questions and to listen carefully. I want to understand the obstacles they face and what is going on in their individual lives. This is important because the girls we support in the slums of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya have different issues than Maasai students in the Mara of Kenya.

Despite the challenges they face every day, I am constantly touched by the joy and serenity I witness. Our students possess a quiet yet steely determination to change their lives for the better. Each time I visit, I am more aware of the joy I see than the sadness I learn about. The girls do not want pity. They want a chance. Education is their best, and truly, their only chance to better their lives.

Mary Grace with a student, Mercy, and Mercy's mother in Kenya, 2014. Photo credit: Sadé Clacken Joseph

Mary Grace with a student, Mercy, and Mercy’s mother in Kenya, 2014. Photo credit: Sadé Clacken Joseph

How did you choose which organizations/schools to fund with the profits of your sales?

I work through IRS approved non-profit organizations. One of my criteria is that they have native staff on the ground who truly understand the issues, speak the dialect, have strong community relationships, and are respected within the community. These are the people who we rely on to give us perspective, analysis, and advice.

Do you have any advice for other kids and teens looking to make a difference?

My advice would be to just begin: to not be afraid or think about all of the “what ifs,” but to instead focus on their goal and take it day by day. If someone has an idea, hold onto it and pursue the passion.

Want more ways to make a difference for girls and women around the world? Visit ONE Girls and Women now!

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