Zhena Muzyka was living off the grid in California and pursuing a writing career when she got pregnant with her first child, Sage, 13 years ago. The baby needed expensive surgeries to survive. With no health insurance and no cash, Muzyka drew upon a deep knowledge of herbalism, aromatherapy and fine tea learned from her Gypsy grandmother. Muzyka began peddling custom-blended artisan teas in a Gypsy-themed street vendor’s cart.
Today, Sage is a healthy teenager and Zhena’s Gypsy Tea—hand-crafted, organic and Fair Trade-certified—is an award-winning premium brand in more than 10,000 stores nationwide. Muzyka recently turned the daily operations over to a CEO so she could focus on personal interests. She wrote a book, Life by the Cup: Confessions and Life Lessons of a Tea Mistress, to be released by Atria next year. And she launched The Robin Hood Laptop Project, which helps children on the Idulgashinna Tea Estate in Sri Lanka gain skills and scholarships for a better future.
How does the Robin Hood Laptop Project help?
We’re providing girls with laptops and tutoring so that they can go to university. We buy new hard drives for them, but basically we’re refurbishing hundreds of donated, secondhand laptops and teaching them how to use them really well.
At age 10 they learn basics, then we teach them advanced computer programs. They’re learning Adobe Photoshop, CAD (a drawing and architectural software system) and Microsoft Office suite, including programs like Excel. Some will even start learning programming in Java before they graduate.
Why this tea plantation?
The Idulgashinna Tea Estate is a magical, visionary place. It was the first Fair Trade-certified and biodynamic tea estate in the world. Most of Zhena’s Gypsy Tea is sourced here, and I am very grateful to work with them. I was married there, and the people are like family to me.
A lot of basic infrastructure is in place because of Fair Trade practices. The children receive a strong educational foundation, which gives them a critical head start we can build on. They also built a Computer Learning Center project, which has a full program with a graduation and a certificate.
What inspired the Robin Hood Laptop Project?
Nisha, a woman I’ve known since she was a young girl, was the first to graduate from the Computer Learning Center project. She was a manager on the plantation, and now she’s working for an NGO in Colombo.
I was visiting the estate when Nisha showed me something extraordinary. The community had chosen to invest in their children’s future by creating a Computer Learning Center. However, they had only three computers for 530 children. So I started thinking, how are we going to get all those kids educated so they can be like Nisha, when most of them have never seen a computer?
When I came home to California, it dawned on me: We had three laptops in our household that we weren’t using. What if we collected used laptops, refurbished them and made them available for the children to check out like library books? Many people have laptops they’re not using, and hard drives are so inexpensive now. A hard drive for a Mac is less than $100. RobinhoodLaptopProject.com
A Dream Come True
Sitharavel Durka “Durga,” whose mother picks tea on the Idulgashinna Tea Estate community on the island of Sri Lanka, wants to be an engineer. However, without basic computer skills she can’t get into college. She was given a computer through The Robin Hood Laptop Project, and now she has options.
Durga’s mother makes a living pulling tea leaves off stalks, and she’s pleased that her daughter might be able to avoid this hard physical labor by getting a higher education. She wants Durga to have a better future, but her reaction to Durga’s new skills is bittersweet.
“She was happy, bewildered and amazed all the same time to see her daughter becoming as adept with the computer as she was at harvesting tea,” says Muzyka. “She is very grateful, but like all evolution, this is new. She’s learning how to be comfortable with such a big change. It is especially hard for her to adjust to the idea that her daughter will be going away.”
Muzyka hopes that Durga will return to the area after college and set up computer learning centers for other tea gardens and children.