Nonprofit organization Mary’s Pence is working towards a world of empowered women making changes in their communities. To get there, Mary’s Pence partners with grassroots organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Central America to provide funding and development programs for women-owned businesses.
Executive director Katherine Wojtan believes Mary’s Pence is different from other nonprofits because the organization not only cares for the individual women, but also oversees the sustainment of their small businesses. Mary’s Pence also values the idea of “accompaniment,” explained by Wojtan as utilizing the abilities of everyone to accomplish a long-term shared vision. This concept is applied to the organization’s execution of both the programs in the states and in Central America, focusing on improving the whole rather than the individual.
The program in Central America called ESPERA, or Economical Systems Providing Equitable Resources for All, was created almost 12 years ago. “Espera” is the Spanish word for hope, a fitting name for the life-changing program working with women in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“This is very intentional, it is not about making individual women rich, but about ensuring all women have access to resources and skills to make their way in the world and earn what they need for a good life,” Wojtan said.
ESPERA aids women who were victims of domestic or gang violence or are single mothers struggling to make ends meet. By giving grants to grassroots organizations in struggling communities, Mary’s Pence creates community-lending pools which women can take loans from to start local women-owned businesses that generate income. To ensure success, the staff of Mary’s Pence teach the community loan management and help elect leaders to track the lending.
Gilda Larios, ESPERA team lead, grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico and worked with Central American refugees before starting work with Mary’s Pence. ESPERA funding gives back to the whole community, not just the women receiving aid. Instead of focusing on building credit, women realize the importance of circulating money and products.
“Their confidence grew – first they asked for a very small loan, and over time they asked for larger loans and grew their businesses,” Larios told The Borgen Project. “With their strength, they are role models for new leadership in the community.”
ESPERA and COVID-19
ESPERA has helped develop many small women-owned businesses that create jobs for their communities and generate income for struggling women. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic put many of these businesses at risk as workers feared for their lives, but the ESPERA team responded fast, changing their focus from long-term development to responding immediately to the needs of the women.
As some women panicked about their businesses and the effects of the pandemic, the ESPERA team responded with a 12-week emotional wellness series, delivered via WhatsApp, and supported stores so they could keep reasonable prices for the communities. For women in the midst of paying back loans to the community-lending pool, their status is put on hold until they have the income to continue their payment.
Despite the support network ESPERA provides, the pandemic revealed some gaps in the system. It was challenging to ensure the safety of women experiencing domestic violence. The lack of access to phones and the internet made communication between communities and ESPERA leaders challenging. However, this time of crisis also brought the communities closer and proved the importance of working together through local businesses.
In her interview with The Borgen Project, Larios told of a woman named Aminta, who is in the ESPERA program in San Salvador, El Salvador. She transitioned from working in a “maquila,” or factory, to starting her own business sewing uniforms for local sports teams. During COVID-19, she also began sewing masks to help keep her community healthy. Success stories of women-owned businesses like this one propel communities into further financial security and empower other women to do the same.
Confidence and Creating Futures
Above all, ESPERA and Mary’s Pence hope to give women confidence in their own abilities to create the future they want for themselves and for their families. For Larios, the most rewarding part of working with ESPERA women is the “feeling of satisfaction and joy to see them embrace their possibilities and capacities that before they thought they didn’t have.”
Through ESPERA and their role in the creation of women-owned businesses, Mary’s Pence continues to change women’s lives by showing them the power they already had within themselves.
– Kiyomi Kishaba
Photo: Google Images