In Honor of Paula Frias: What is the most generous thing to do?

April 26, 2016

The Isabel Allende Foundation was created in 1996 to pay homage to the international novelist's daughter, Paula Frias. Seed funding came from the income Isabel earned from " Paula," the memoir she wrote after her daughter's death. The Foundation supports organizations which seek economic and social justice for women and children. Thistle Farms and its Global Shared Trade Market has been blessed with its support and generosity. When Isabel visited us earlier this year, writer Kay West asked her to tell us more about Paula, and the beginnings of her foundation: 

Paula’s life was always one of service since she was a little girl. We lived near a retirement home. Every day, on her way home from school, she stopped to visit them. She baked cookies for them. She liked old people. She graduated as a psychologist and worked in the slums in Venezuela. She went to Spain and worked with prostitutes and their children. She made no money! I had to support her. I would always joke, 'You do the work and I'll go to heaven.' She cared deeply for others. When in doubt, her motto was: What is the most generous thing to do?

When Paula became ill in Spain, I brought her home and cared for her and she died in my arms in December 1992. I started her book on January 8 th because that is when I started my first book. I didn’t know what I was going to write but I had taken notes in the hospital in Madrid. I had written to my mother every day, and when Paula died she gave me back the letters. She said 'Read your letters because you will know what to write.' The letters gave me perspective. 

After Paula died I was in such a terrible time, such grief. I was in emotional paralysis. My husband and friend suggested a trip. So I was in India with my husband and a friend. We had rented a car and hired a driver and guide to take us around the country side. The car had gotten hot so the driver pulled over to let it cool down and it was the middle of nowhere. There was a lonely tree, no village, nothing. There were about four women and some children by the tree...We had no language but they were touching my friend's red hair and our bangles we had bought, so we gave them our bangles. As we were leaving to go to the car, one of them came over and gave me a little bundle of rags. I thought it was a gift in exchange for the bangles.  I said 'Thank you but it is not necessary.'  She insisted, she pushed it at me. When I pulled apart the rags I saw it was a newborn baby. It still had the tied end of the cord attached. It could not have been more than a couple of days old. So tiny. I kissed the baby and blessed the baby and tried to give it back and she wouldn't take it. The driver came…and  pushed us to the car. I asked him 'Why would a woman give away her baby?' And he said, 'It's a girl. Who wants a girl?' That is the truth of some other cultures. 

When I wrote " Paula," I put the money in an account, thinking one day I would honor her using that money.  After that incident in India, I knew what to do. I started a foundation to help girls. Since then it has grown so we can support many organizations. Within that mission, we try to work with people who are really grass roots…If you target people doing something on a small scale, it can make a huge difference.

But I am not a sad person, I am not grieving. I carry this tragedy inside like a gift. It has made me strong and open-hearted. I compare everything that happens to me now, to that, and I know if I can survive that I can survive anything.  If Paula had not died, this is the kind of work she would be doing. So in a way she is still doing this work. Whenever we have a board meeting, we light a candle for her. It is her doing. It is her book that started it.

Thank you Isabel. We are honored to be a part of the continuing legacy of generosity of your daughter Paula Frias.

To learn more about the Isabel Allende Foundation, visit here.

Isabel and her team pictured in the Thistle Farms manufacturing room where candles are made and lit to give life to more women. We will continue to ask the question of ourselves, "What is the most generous thing to do?"

Images courtesy of the Isabel Allende Foundation except bottom image, courtesy of Peggy Napier.

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