By Hannah Lynch
At age 12, Mary Grace Henry asked her parents multiple times for a sewing machine. “Finally, I asked a third time, and my dad asked, ‘What can you possibly want this for? I don’t understand this.’” She replied, “I want to help a girl go to school,’ and that got their attention.”
Mary Grace Henry found out that girls in Africa where being forced into marriage, once they are done reproducing, the men would leave the woman and kids with nothing.
Young Henry wanted to pay for a four-year education for one African girl. She had a plan to sell homemade hair accessories at her school bookstore putting all the profits toward the African girl’s education. She called her business “Reverse the Course.” Henry knew she couldn’t stop at just helping one girl.
It took her about two months to make approximately 50 headbands that were good enough to be sold. The headbands sold out in two days. She then started selling more at boutiques, sidewalk sales, and craft fairs.
When she was 16, Henry went to Kenya for a few days and grew a personal connection with the girls she to whom she was giving an education.
Now 17 and a high school senior, Mary Grace Henry has sold over 11,000 accessories. Henry’s mission is to fund secondary education for girls who live in extreme poverty, focusing on sub-Saharan Africa. She also provides primary school fees for girls at risk of mutilation, early marriage or abuse.
Her commitment to advance the cause of education for girls will continue when she attends college.
Reverse the Course has given education to 66 girls in 4 countries and has funded 154 years of school fees at 21 different schools. 37 of the students are in boarding schools staying safe. Every girl in the program is fed 3 meals every day. Funding also includes textbooks, uniforms, shoes, school supplies, and national testing fees.
Education is not all Henry provides. Over 250 pounds of sewing supplies were sent to Uganda to encourage the girls to start their own entrepreneurial companies. Henry also funded Life Skills Workshops in rural Kenya that teach important health and sanitation practices.
“Girls face a second hurdle that is far more difficult to address: their culture,” Henry said. “In many countries throughout the world, girls are viewed as having not just lesser value than boys, but often devastatingly little or no value.”
She has given these girls an opportunity that they would have never gotten a chance to have because girls are often shut out from educational opportunities since families believe it is better to invest in sons who will remain with the family than in daughters who will join their husbands’ families.
Mary Grace Henry received the 2014 World of Children Award. Funding from the World of Children Award will support Reverse the Course’s mission to provide education for disenfranchised girls and develop business training and mentoring programs for the girls, empowering them to become agents of positive change in their communities.
“Educating a girl can reverse the course of her life, change the course of a community…and a country,” Henry said.
Henry received letters from some of the girls saying what they want to be when they grew up. One of the girls didn’t know what “to be” means. One girl looked shocked and said she never thought she could be anything except what the village elders told her to be. Another girl began to cry as she thought about all the possibilities before her.
Henry’s goal is to provide an education for 100 girls. She has a website where people can purchase hair accessories and make a donation toward Reverse the Course. The name “reverse the course” came from the reversible headbands Henry made.
In 2014, Mary Grace Henry traveled across the world to Kenya and Uganda for the second time. During her trip, she was able to personally meet most of the students she recently helped. “It was amazing to see both old and new faces. Seeing my students was alone of the most impactful parts of the trip,” Henry said.
On her recent trip, she observed programs she has been working with since December 2013
“My advice is just to begin,” Henry said. “When you see a need, act. Dream big, but start small, taking little steps.”