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The Region

Helping the Poor in Nicaragua Is 80-Year-Old Activist's Bag

Philanthropy: She sends plastic sacks to Central America to be woven into colorful purses.

April 29, 2002|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ruth Smith is no mere bag lady--she's a connoisseur of the plastic sack.

The white-and-blue ones from Wal-Mart and the pink from Mary Kay cosmetics top her list while the duller, brown bags from chain grocery stores bring up the rear.

When she collects enough bags, the 80-year-old Camarillo woman begins snipping them into strips. Weeks later, hands and wrists sore, she packs them into boxes and sends them to Nicaragua. Local woman there weave the strips into colorful, heavy-duty purses with zig-zag designs and intricate patterns.

The purses are returned to Smith, who carts them around in the trunk of her car, selling them to anyone expressing the remotest interest. Her hairdresser, exercise classmates and members of her church have all forked over $15 to $20 for a purse. Smith sends all the money back to the weavers and, while none have gone from bags to riches, the extra cash substantially boosts their meager incomes.

"I mailed 12 pounds this week and there were at least a thousand bags inside," said the energetic Smith, a former Marine, retired schoolteacher and activist who has been involved in peace movements around the world for decades.

Smith toured the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, visited Hiroshima, attended peace conferences in Honduras and taught at a coffee cooperative in Nicaragua while the American-supported Contra rebels were trying to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government.

"I went to Nicaragua partly because I was so distressed by our government policy of backing the Contras," she said. "I figured if there was anything I could do to make up for the problems my country caused, I would."

Nicaragua's war ended, but Smith's interest in the nation hasn't waned. She has taught sewing, weaving and crocheting to Nicaraguan women to help them supplement their incomes.

"Each time I go down, I fall in love with the country all over again," Smith said. "The men are very macho and the women are often left to raise the children."

Two years ago, Smith heard of a program in Huntington Beach to send plastic bags to Nicaragua, and she immediately got involved.

"We figured if they were given a skill, they could buy, sell and barter," she said.

U.S. bags are used because plastic bags in Nicaragua are often thin and disintegrate easily, Smith said. The weavers make everything from small purses to large bags with cloth linings. Those made with red, blue or white plastic bags fetch higher prices than the ones made with standard light brown grocery bags. When complete, it's hard to tell that the sturdy purses are gussied-up plastic.

The sale of a $20 purse, said Smith, provides enough to buy groceries for a weaver and her family for a month.

The women who make the bags live in the mountain city of Jinotega. Smith, who has been to Nicaragua five times, said they have no running water or sewers. Their houses are mere shacks jutting precariously from green hillsides.

Smith keeps a box at her church where many of the 150 members have deposited bags. For her 80th birthday party, she talked people into purchasing the bags instead of buying her presents.

"She is wonderful, and the project is so important," said Susan Bronn, chairwoman of the social concerns committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ventura, which Smith attends.

"The committee and congregation collect the bags she needs and we give her money to cover the shipping," Bronn said. "I think what she does is great because all the money she raises goes directly to the people."

Smith, divorced with four grown children, is originally from Missouri and came to California after joining the Marines. She ran the female mess hall at Camp Pendleton during World War II.

After getting married she moved to Camarillo, where she taught reading in the local schools for 27 years. She also traveled the world as a member of Educators for Social Responsibility, a peace and social justice activist group.

Smith's home is full of books and artifacts from her travels. Her walls are covered with pictures of women and children she has met from Peru to Japan. Nicaragua, however, remains special to her.

"I went to Nicaragua in 1983 to check out the revolution and I was so impressed," she said. "They raised the literacy rate, everyone was getting health care. But the Sandinistas had their problems, because power tends to corrupt."

She says she will continue collecting bags and trying to make whatever difference she can.

"It's so satisfying and such a big part of my life," she said.

And she may have found some new customers.

"The people at the post office have asked me what I'm selling," she said. "They don't have any bags--yet."

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