An 18-Year-Old and Her Sewing Machine Are Powering Girls’ Education

Mary Grace Henry has sold more than 16,000 hair accessories, using the profits to send girls in Uganda and Kenya to school.

Mary Grace with Stella and Teddy, two girls attending Bishops secondary school in Uganda (Photo: Sadé Clacken Joseph/One.org)

Aug 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Aishling Thurow is the strategic relations intern at One.org. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in international health.

Consider this the most selfless birthday ever.

Mary Grace Henry was 12 when she requested a sewing machine for her birthday present; then she used it to create reversible headbands for purchase and sent the profits to help fund girls’ education in Uganda and Kenya. Now 18 and an incoming freshman at the University of Notre Dame, Henry founded Reverse the Course, which has been operating for the past six years to support primary and secondary education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa, especially those at risk of child marriage, abuse, and female genital mutilation.

Since its founding, the organization has sold nearly 16,000 hair accessory products, has sponsored 66 girls, and is paying for 154 years’ worth of educational needs, including textbooks, uniforms, and boarding costs. For Henry, the ability to “reverse the course” of a girl’s life and break the cycle of poverty begins by providing her with an education.

Thirty-one million girls around the world are not in school, according to World Bank estimates. One-third of girls in developing countries also marry before the age of 18 and give birth before the age of 20. With a secondary education, however, child marriage rates in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia would drop by 64 percent, according to UNICEF.

We spoke to Henry about how a sewing machine, hair accessories, and a simple mission are helping make an impact on the other side of the world.

Aishling Thurow: What motivated you to start Reverse the Course?

Mary Grace Henry: 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.

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

Henry: I’ve been to Africa three 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 Masai 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.

Thurow: How did you choose which organizations or schools to fund with the profits from your sales?

Henry: I work through IRS-approved nonprofit 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.

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

Henry: 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.

Thurow: Do you have any advice for others looking to make a difference?

Henry: 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 on to it and pursue the passion.

A version of this article previously appeared on One.org.