WMS people

Alumni Spotlight: Dawn Hurley, ’91


I am a high school English teacher. I’ve taught in the Bronx and Harlem. That was part of the plan. I became a teacher because I believe that my education has empowered me and I wanted to help empower others.

But right now I am living in The Democratic Republic of Congo and working with a small sewing group for handicapped women. This was not part of the plan. Congo is a long way from home; a country where English is rarely spoken. And sewing… well, to be honest, I don’t know anything about  sewing.

I came to Congo because my husband is working with micro -finance here. There are many things I love about Congo, but the hardest thing for me here is the incredible disparity of wealth. In Congo I found myself living in a perfectly nice house next to Mama Kavira. Mama Kavira lives with at least 12 family members in a tiny shack on an abandoned plot of land with no water and no electricity. She has lived there for the past 12 years, raising her family with no source of income, often begging for food. What do I have to offer neighbors like Mama Kavira?

I wanted to do something with Mama Kavira, not for her. Something that would empower her to make changes in her own life. So we bought a sewing machine, and the two of us, who had never touched a machine before, began to learn to sew.

That beginning project became a sewing group called Shona. The group has changed a lot in the past year. It is now a sewing group for physically handicapped women. But more than ever, Shona is about empowerment. In this culture, handicapped people are expected to beg on the streets. Yet this is a group of women, talented in sewing, and determined to find a better way of life. Shona is organized by the women themselves. Together they are learning the accounting, leadership, and decision making skills necessary to run Shona. And in the process they are beginning to see all that they are capable of doing.

I never dreamed I’d be here, doing this. I thought I’d be teaching English in Harlem, instead I am teaching sewing and accounting in Congo. But in the end isn’t the lesson really the same? It is the lesson WMS taught me years ago: the power of education.

The women of Shona are amazing examples of this lesson. Take Argentine. She was born in a small village and at age 2 she contracted polio. Her family was too poor to bring her to a hospital for treatment. She quickly lost the use of her legs and spent her childhood dragging herself along the ground, unable to leave the house or attend school. As the war intensified in the area surrounding her village, Argentine was often carried on her mother’s back and hidden in the forest before soldiers invaded their home. As an adult, Argentine has learned to read, write and sew. With the help of an operation, she has learned to walk again by wearing heavy metal braces and using crutches. Today she is learning accounting and English and is a powerful leader in the group. Argentine’s sewing enables her to live on her own and provide for herself in a country torn by poverty. But she has chosen to do more than that. Every month she sends money back to her village to help pay her younger siblings’ school fees.

I became a teacher because I wanted to help others understand  that true education  is about empowerment. But perhaps I am the one who is a student still. It is not in a classroom, and it isn’t with books. But the women of Shona continue to teach me every day the power of education.