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Indian-American gets Newsweek award

June 26, 2006 10:35 IST

Benita Singh, an Indian-American student at Yale university, is among 15 US citizens and organisations chosen by Newsweek magazine for its annual 'Giving Back' awards - honouring those who use fame, fortune and heart to devote themselves to helping others.

Benita and partner Ruth DeGolia have been chosen for their work among women, especially widows, in Guatemala.

The 15 awardees were chosen from among hundreds of nominations.

The citation says Benita and Ruth were still undergraduates in the summer of 2003 when they found their destiny in the village of San Alfonso in Guatemala.

The two, international-studies majors at Yale, were working on their senior theses when they visited the village, filled with women who had fled Guatemala during a brutal civil war in the 1980s.

After two years in refugee camps in Mexico, the women, many of them widowed by the fighting, had been repatriated to their country where there was no work and no market for the exquisite woven and beaded handicrafts they produced.

But the women weren't beggars. It was, says Benita, 'the first time I'd ever walked into an impoverished community where people weren't asking me for money'.

The two students filled their suitcases with beaded bags and necklaces and took them back to Yale that fall, where they quickly sold out at a 300 per cent markup.

By Christmas they were back in Guatemala, laying the groundwork for a non-profit organisation they named Mercado Global, which seeks to bring the benefits of globalisation to poor communities.

With a start-up grant from Echoing Green, a 'social entrepreneurship' foundation, they organised 15 to 18 co-operatives in villages so remote that many inhabitants don't even speak Spanish, let alone English.

The members produce textiles on back strap looms, hand-painted ceramics and jewellery for the export market.

They grossed about $75,000 last year in retail, online and catalog sales. Benita and Ruth project sales of $600,000 and are in talks with a major chain about carrying their hand-painted coffee mugs.

The money will be used to fund scholarships for children whose parents could not afford the 50 or 60 dollars it costs to send a child to elementary school in rural Guatemala.

Benita and Ruth are also sending a computer to each of the cooperatives so the women can keep their accounts.

'We have a very special place in our heart for young people with the audacity, the vision and the energy to see things through,' says Lara Galinsky, a vice-president of Echoing Green.

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