Maine woman seeks donations of eyeglasses for Kuna people of Panama

Kuna women of the San Blas Islands of Panama wear blouses adorned with molas, such as this one (center), which they also make to sell. The molas are finely sewn by hand and some have as many as seven layers.
Megan Leavitt
Kuna women of the San Blas Islands of Panama wear blouses adorned with molas, such as this one (center), which they also make to sell. The molas are finely sewn by hand and some have as many as seven layers.
Posted Sept. 10, 2012, at 3:46 p.m.

BAR HARBOR — Megan Leavitt, 29, is a self-described nomad.

“I’ve been traveling for the last 12 years,” she said. Her travels have taken her from Glenburn, where she grew up; to Santa Cruz and the University of California where she earned a degree, on full scholarship, in Latin American and Latino studies; to Haiti; Mexico; Central America; and South America. But the place that has captured her heart is the land of the indigenous Kuna people of Kuna Yala that encompasses the San Blas Islands of Panama.

“There aren’t a lot of roads in San Blas, and only a few air strips. A boat is the best way to get there,” she said.

This summer, Leavitt, a jewelry maker, is in Bar Harbor working as a waitress and planning her next trip to San Blas, which will begin in late October. And if all goes according to plan she will be carrying eyeglasses to the islands. She is requesting donations of reading glasses that she will take to the Kuna people.

“The Kuna women sew beautiful molas,” Leavitt said. Molas are made of layers of cloth, each layer having intricate designs cut into it to reveal the one below. The raw edges are turned under and stitched in place by hand. At a certain age, when eyesight is not as youthful as it once was, the women have to give up sewing. But with eyeglasses, they can continue to sew and make molas. This is important because the women make molas as part of the clothing they wear, and to sell, Leavitt said.

“These are people who fish for a living, using canoes hand dug from a tree. They also farm. They live in dwellings constructed of cane with thatched roofs,” Leavitt said. “When I talk with them the only thing they ever ask for is eyeglasses, snorkel masks to help with fishing, flour, sugar and magazines.”

Leavitt will travel with boat owner Patrick Reilly, 39, who grew up on Mount Desert Island. Reilly is spending the summer in Belfast as captain of the Amity, a Friendship sloop that takes passengers on excursions in Penobscot Bay.

“I’m from a boating family and have worked on boats most of my life,” he said. When he was a child he went with his family on a cruise to the Caribbean where he met an Australian family that lived on a boat and sailed the world.

“That’s how I discovered what I wanted to do when I grew up,” he said.

Reilly said his 48-foot boat, Maggie, is moored near San Blas. He and Leavitt will fly to Panama, then sail to Kuna villages to deliver the reading glasses.

It won’t be Reilly’s first seafaring mission for a good cause. In 2008 he sailed to Haiti to deliver goat fencing and construction materials after a devastating earthquake and hurricanes struck the island. The trip was funded, he said, through donations.

“I was impressed by how many of my friends and others held fundraisers to raise money for that trip,” he said.

Reilly, like Leavitt, loves to travel, but he also loves Maine.

“It’s Maine in the summer, the rest of the world in winter,” he said. “I see opportunities to help out along the way, so why not?”

To donate reading glasses, mail them to: Discover our Planet, 34 Court St., Belfast 04915. For information, visit Reilly’s website at discoverourplanet.com or email Leavitt at leavitt.megan@gmail.com.

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