For most people, vacation is a time to relax and recharge the batteries before heading back to daily life, but for one woman in Charlottesville, vacation turned into a whole new life.
Beth Neville Evans was a successful dressmaker for twenty years - serving folks wealthy enough to commission their own fashions. She loved her clients and her work, had a couple of great kids and a devoted husband, but something with missing from Beth Neville’s life.
“And that was an opportunity to not just feel like you’re helping but to know people from a different socio-economic background that don’t have everything that I’ve always had.”
She had an assistant - Jane Mathews, the sister of rising rock star Dave Mathews.
“David at that time was popular, but he wasn’t the big star he became, but we would still dream. We would talk about what we’d do with his money when he got rich.”
They wouldn’t spend that money on themselves. They’d give it to people in need. Evans actually joined the board of a foundation, and was approached by someone doing work in Latin America.
“Someone came up to me with pictures of a young man from Guatemala who had an ugly growth on the side of his head. They asked me if I could help.”
She knew nothing about medicine, but that picture haunted her, and she decided to try. She began studying Spanish, and working with her teacher, she found a surgeon in Costa Rica who was willing to help. Evans decided to go and meet the patient.
The young man, Sebastian, had what’s called an arterio-venous malformation - a benign tumor supplied by dozens of blood vessels.
“The two dangers, according to the doctor, were that he would bleed to death. The other one was that his heart was huge because it had been working so hard to feed that growth.”
After having a good cry, she and a colleague took Sebastian home, using some of the money they’d raised for the surgery to rent a helicopter so they wouldn’t have to spend more than ten hours on a bus,. When they got to his village, near the town of San Mateo Ixtatan, bordering the Mexican state of Chiapas, Evans was blown away.
“It’s just perched on the side of these mountains. It just breaks your heart -- the beauty of it.”
And she was charmed by a huge crowd of children who gathered to watch the helicopter land and to welcome these visitors. Evans couldn’t stay long, but she vowed to come back to help San Matteo and Sebastian.
“I brought his angiogram and MRI and test results home, and when I got home I talked to David, and I said I’m thinking about trying to find a doctor here, and he said, ‘If you do find a doctor, I’ll pay for it.’”
She did find a doctor in New York willing to do the dangerous surgery, and she brought Sebastian to live with her family in Charlottesville beforehand. There were several months of treatment before the operation could be done, and it took 28 hours, followed by four weeks in the hospital and more operations to put muscle and skin in the place where the tumor had been.
As she sat by his bedside, Sebastian told her about his life, his home and the fact that kids in that area had no high school. Evans knew that was her next mission.
Today, there are 280 students at the Seeds of Wisdom High School. Ten of their 18 teachers are graduates of the school, three are studying medicine on full scholarship at a top school in Cuba, several are attending law school or studying engineering, and Evans’s own children have joined in this educational mission.
“Yes - they’ve all been there. We spent Christmas down there once. Eliza taught English for two months, and Patrick, when he was in college, did his field work term there. He did an art camp with little kids.”
Evans arranged for several faculty members from UVA’s engineering school to work on water and waste treatment plants in San Mateo Ixtatan. The Tandem Friends School in Charlottesville hosts a scholarship student from the town and last but certainly not least, Evans says her husband agreed to provide full support for their family, so she could quit her job, and he’s made at least ten trips to San Matteo to work on various construction projects.
Sebastian, who got this ball rolling, is now 45 and has five children - one named for Dave Matthews, and Beth Neville Evans figures the group she founded - the Ixtatan Foundation - has raised $2.5 million for the people of San Mateo.