Greenville jeweler uses talent to help endangered tribe

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GREENVILLE, NC (WITN) - Many of us are familiar with our ancestry. For the descendants of some of the world's remaining indigenous tribes, they see their heritage at risk. Here's how a local woman named Ileana Rojas-Bennett is working to preserve her predecessors in Central America.

She took a basic jewelry-making class at Pitt Community College in 2005. She says that class whet her appetite to learn more and make more jewelry.

Rojas-Bennett had a specific cause in her native Costa Rica to support with her jewelry sales--the Maleku tribe, for which her jewelry is named, and from which some of her family is descended. The native Maleku people are dwindling in numbers. Their population once numbered 6,000 people. Now, that number has dropped to fewer than 500.

"This is the only indigenous tribe in Costa Rica that actually they can read and write the language and can speak the language, so it's not a dialect. It's an actual language," Rojas-Bennett explains. Additionally, the tribe is particularly artistic, and she believes their traditions and heritage are deserving of preserving.

Among the work Rojas-Bennett has supported through her sales so far is running water for a Maleku village, building a road, and also donations of food. Those are expensive projects, but her jewelry has world-wide acclaim. In 2010, Rojas-Bennett won the prestigious "Beyond the Runway" award at New York City Fashion Week. She was the first designer of jewelry to win that award in 24 years. Her career in jewelry making skyrocketed from there, and so did her ability to help maintain the Maleku.

"To touch someone's life," she says, has always been her purpose, first as a Spanish teacher at five eastern Carolina schools and ECU, and now as a designer and jeweler. During her education career, she taught in Aurora, Chocowinity, DH Conley in Pitt County, Hunt High School in Wilson and Parrott Academy in Kinston.

She hopes her jewelry and philanthropy now inspire others.

"Don't feel afraid to give. The world is changing, and we have a lot of things that are happening nowadays, but not everyone is bad. We still have to believe there are good people out there that can make a difference."

Like a piece of jewelry, giving to others can add beauty to your life.

Rojas-Bennett's jewelry is sold in her studio in Greenville but also in some boutiques and in the Miami airport. Her pieces range in price from just $5 to several hundred. Some celebrities and cable news anchors also wear her designs. She hopes to expand to catalog sales in 2018 and expand her ability to help the Maleku tribe in Costa Rica. She meets with the tribe each year to determine their needs and how she can help.