BYU graduate empowers women in Uganda

Melissa Sevy, co-founder of the non-profit group Musana, uses the experience she gained in Uganda to help women in need. Photo courtesy of The Ballad Center for Economic Self-Reliance.
Melissa Sevy, co-founder of the non-profit group Musana, uses the experience she gained in Uganda to help women in need. Photo courtesy of The Ballad Center for Economic Self-Reliance.

Warm sunlight gleamed through the windows of the small office that housed the headquarters for Musana. Hundreds of handcrafted necklaces hung on the walls, and pictures of the artisans who made them sat just off to the side, the smiles on the women’s faces warm and inviting.

“Musana means sunlight,” said Melissa Sevy, one of Musana’s founders. “That’s what these women do, bring light to their communities.”

In 2009, Sevy, along with 30 other students from BYU, visited Lugazi, Uganda, with HELP International as volunteers and directors working in the local communities for four months. Seeing all the hard circumstances in which the women lived inspired Sevy and a few others to make a change.

“We got to know the women in the community; several of them we were working closely with, and they were so happy to have work,” Sevy said. “In Lugazi, in the majority of homes the woman has economic burden, but there are no jobs for women. Bright, capable women, but there’s just very little opportunity to make enough to send their kids to school or have nutritious food or even get medical care.”

Sevy co-founded Musana in 2009 with Kristen Wade and Rebbeca Burgon, two other students on the same trip to Uganda. She said they were concerned about what would happen to these women after they left, as these local women relied mostly on work from students and volunteers, and came up with an idea that could create self-sustaining work to help and teach them.

“We were looking for ways to help them help themselves,” Sevy said. “While we were living there, we loved seeing the jewelry on the local market and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Although they formed a viable nonprofit organization and had good intentions, Sevy said, the three of them were naive and had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

“At that point we were not really business minded; we were more third-world development,” Sevy said. “We just kind of started it and have had to learn what we are doing as we go along.”

Sevy graduated from BYU with a master’s degree in public health in 2009 and teaches as an adjunct at both BYU and UVU. As a firm public health advocate, she integrates theories she has learned in the field into Musana’s initiative, empowering the women of Lugazi with knowledge and skills.

“Our health program with our artisans and the community is a big part of our initiative,” Sevy said. “The three aspects that are part of our education program for our artisans are health, entrepreneurship and literacy in English. Through that, plus their salary, our goal is to break the cycle of poverty through women.”

Abbey Crandall, a 24-year-old public health major from Ramstein, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, is an intern with Musana and said she was inspired by Sevy’s passion.

“I first met Melissa when she came to my public health class and did a presentation on her occupation and the various projects she had done,” Crandall said. “I remember when she was giving her presentation I kept thinking how awesome she was.”

Crandall said she became involved because she really loved what Musana was about and the dedication that Sevy and the other interns have toward social change.

“The sky’s the limit with her,” Crandall said. “She’s the most optimistic and positive person I know. She’s very passionate about what she does.”

Sevy’s passion can be seen in all aspects of her life, both personal and professional. An avid adventure seeker, Sevy said she loves being outdoors hiking or mountain biking. She is also personable and friendly, a skill that has served her well in her profession. Scott Stoller, 24, a public relations major from Mesa, Arizona, and also an intern with Musana, said he was nervous to meet Sevy upon first hearing about her.

“I thought she was going to be extremely intense, but when I sat down and met with her, she was like my best friend,” Stoller said. “She’s very sociable and genuine.”

Musana’s marketing director, Linden Baker, has worked many long nights with Sevy and said it is amazing how well they work together, given how much time they spend together.

“Melissa and I are soulmates,” Baker joked. “We are both the type of people that get along with most people, and we bounce ideas really well off of each other, and we end up coming up with great collaborations and ideas together.”

Sevy agreed that they made a good team. “Our strengths are very different,” she said. “We can have way different perspectives and hash it out with each other and then get to the best solution.”

Baker remarked that their relationship is more like siblings, and they are never worried about hurting each other’s feelings. She said their blatant honesty as friends and coworkers has contributed to much of their success with Musana.

“We both care that much about Musana that if we weren’t as honest as we are now, it would never work,” Baker said.

Sevy’s love for Musana has helped it grow from an idea in the minds of three volunteers to a fully functioning nonprofit business.

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