Yadira Vallejo, 25, is slim and pretty. She wears her thick dark hair tied in a neat ponytail and a serene expression in her luminous eyes. The only outward evidence of how hard her life must be is her hands. Calloused and hard, these young hands have poured cement, nailed up 2-by-4s, dug ditches and sewed countless T-shirts and camisoles.

In 1997, Vallejo was studying to become an executive secretary and working in an antiques store in Managua. Then Hurricane Mitch turned her life upside down. Today, like most of the 20,000 residents of the disaster- relief community of Nueva Vida, she and her family live in a windowless 300-square-foot, dirt-floor shack. Still, with the local unemployment rate more than 80 percent, Vallejo considers herself lucky. She makes $5 a day as a member of a newly established sewing cooperative, sponsored by Maggie's Organics and North Carolina-based philanthropic organization Jubilee House Community. Finally, she says, "My children are eating three meals a day like they should be."

A single mom, like many women in Nueva Vida, Vallejo had no idea how to run a sewing machine when she first heard about the Maquilador Mujeres co-op a little more than two years ago. After attending sewing school on a Jubilee House grant, Vallejo joined the co-op, where her co-workers elected her treasurer and quality control manager because she was one of the few high school graduates.

Today, in addition to sewing she supervises a line of up to 40 workers, keeps track of orders, oversees hiring (and occasional firing), and handles payroll. Empowered by her experience, Yadira says she hopes to eventually study business administration, "for my cooperative and for myself." Mostly she wants to help others in Nueva Vida, as she has been helped. "It's not just those of us who started the co-op who work there now," she says. "We're able to give work to a lot of other families. I feel that even if it's just a little grain of sand, we have helped our country."

—L.M.