Sister Salons for Guatemala

Montclair salon owner reaches out to Guatemalan women


Whoever said "beauty is only skin deep" never met Nonna Pekarev, owner of La Belle Vie Salon and Spa on Fairfield Street.

Equipped with a giant-sized sense of compassion, a loyal and proactive client base, and a cadre of supportive friends in the community, the effervescent Pekarev has undertaken a makeover of global proportions.

She joined with Yifat Susskind, executive director of MADRE, an international human rights organization, to launch "Sister Salons for Guatemala," a social entrepreneurship project that aims to enable poverty-stricken women in Guatemala who are victims of domestic violence to open their own hair salon. The salon would serve as a teaching space to provide job training programs and domestic violence counseling to women.

"Job training is really crucial not just to making ends meet but also as a safety strategy," Susskind said. "It's hard to leave an abusive situation if you don't have any way to support yourself or your kids."

The two Montclair residents are the leading force behind a capital campaign to raise $30,000 to build a salon in Barcenas, an unplanned community on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

Pekarev and Susskind met a year ago at a fundraiser hosted by a mutual friend to benefit victims of the earthquake in Haiti. After hearing Susskind's appeal to help women in tent cities where rape had become an emergent crisis, Pekarev invited Susskind to her salon's second anniversary party and offered the event as a fundraising opportunity for MADRE.

"I decided the celebration of that two-year anniversary should have a little bit more meaning than just giving food and sampling wine," Pekarev said. Having visited Guatemala City recently, Susskind suggested that the fundraiser be dedicated to the women and girls of Barcenas who are experiencing an alarming rate of domestic violence, rape, torture and murder.

Susskind attended the party and accepted the donation on behalf of MADRE, and, in turn, presented Pekarev with a small token of appreciation from the women of Guatemala. "They painted a lovely picture for me," said Pekarev, with a gleam in her eye. As an aside, Susskind mentioned that the women in Guatemala had expressed that "what they really, really wanted to do, in order to have some way to earn an income for themselves and also to be able to create a kind of a women's center, was to open a hair salon."

With a staggering unemployment rate for women in Barcenas, an income-generating project made sense to Susskind. "But why a hair salon?" she asked. The women told her, "Because a hair salon is an intimate place, where women can talk about what is going on in their lives, and take care of each other, and, have the kind of conversations that you can't have at all in mixed company." A hair salon would provide them a safe place where they could develop marketable skills as beauticians, hair stylists, and manicurists.

"I kept looking at this painting," Pekarev said. "It just bothered me. I didn't know why." A Russian immigrant who came to the United States in 1994 with two suitcases, $200, and not a word of English, Pekarev had achieved her dream of running a thriving hair salon, but she felt she could do more. Two weeks after the anniversary party, she called Susskind with a proposal: "I think I want to build that place in Guatemala."

And so, a simple gift became the inspiration for Sister Salons of Guatemala with the guiding principal that "…every woman deserves a beautiful life." Susskind says of Pekarev, "By making a commitment to the Sister Salons, she's created a way for so many people in … and around Montclair to be part of a really special project."

The Montclair community celebrated the launch of Sister Salons for Guatemala at La Belle Vie Salon and Spa on Oct. 12. Watchung Plaza businesses donated foods, libations and items for the silent auction. Pekarev's client Gary Segal, an architect and interior designer, donated his services to create the preliminary plans for the salon.

Montclair resident Elsy Sandhusen, a French- and Spanish-language tutor and the first of Pekarev's clients to send a check to MADRE, summed it up: "These women are so courageous, that they want to be productive members of society, and they live in fear. And this is a way for them to contribute something to their world, to make themselves beautiful, and to gain independence."

Headquartered in New York, MADRE works throughout Latin America, Africa and the Middle East generating programs that address the challenges women face: poverty, domestic violence, the effects of climate change, policies that create economic inequality, war and armed conflict. Susskind explains, "We work in places where women are organizing in their communities, and it's often in a really grassroots kind of way to address immediate needs that come up in the community, but also — with a sort of a vision of long-term social change — a better future for those kids.

"When you are working with people who are most directly threatened by that crisis, and have access to the resources that they need, but also places where policies and decisions get made, it can really create social change," Susskind said.


To view the article in full, please click here

To learn more about Sister Salons for Guatemala, please click here

To learn more about the Barcenas Women Workers' Committee, please click here 



Kat Noel, Website & Media Coordinator
PHONE: +1 212 627 0444

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