One hand-made good at a time
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” As Doug Dirks described the vision of his organization, he made it sound beautifully simple.
“We want people to be able to afford the basics of life,” said Dirks, who’s in public relations at Ten Thousand Villages.
What could be less controversial than that?
That’s been in the organization’s thought for years. Ever since its small-scale, humble beginnings in the 1940s, it’s been aiding those in need in dozens of developing nations. It’s given people the chance to put roofs over their heads and send their kids to school and keep food in their bellies.
And all that has happened one hand-made bowl, necklace and sheet of paper at a time.
Now run by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the organization buys handicrafts from global artisans and then sells them at reasonable prices at its more than 120 stores and 200 festivals throughout the United States and Canada. The money made goes straight back into the non-profit, which has doubled in size about every five or six years. Unlike a regular business, the group gives its artisans half their pay up front and then compensates them entirely after they’ve finished their work. In that way, if the product doesn’t sell, the people aren’t left in debt. While the crafts are made to be marketable in this country, most reflect the cultural heritage of the artists who made them. The point, as Dirks sees it, is that Villages consumers aren’t buying your average “plastic do-dad,” but a gift that actually means something on a larger scale. It’s that uniqueness and importance, he thinks, that keeps people coming back.
“A lot of our customers say to us, ‘We want to spend our money responsibly,'” he explained.
It’s their resolve that makes all the difference. And he’s seen that difference first-hand.
Back in 1982, he was 28, and he and his wife, Joanne, wanted to inject some adventure into their lives. So he quit his desk job, and they decided to volunteer with MCC in Bangladesh. For three years, they worked in job creation and tried to give the locals an industry they could sink their teeth into. It was then he met Morium, a widow with two daughters who made her living begging in the street. She existed in staggering poverty, living in a lean-to behind someone’s house that doubled as a cow shed. Her family was only able to stay there because they took care of the animals. But they weren’t complaining. After all, Morium told Dirks, the cows kept them warm on cold nights.
It was only when Morium was introduced to the idea of making her own money that anything started to change. She was one of six needy woman that Dirks helped to start their own business. They decided on papermaking and by the time he left, the fledgling company was already up and running.
When he returned in 1989, 50 women were working there, and Morium was on the management committee. When he came back two years ago, the place employed 200 women. Dirks visited Morium then, at her own house this time, and he was greeted by her oldest daughter. The kid he’d first met on the streets had just finished nursing school and was moving on to becoming a doctor.
Of course, the shift blew Dirks away.
“Oh, that’s tremendous,” he said. “That’s the reason we do this kind of work.”
It’s not like he wants to do anything else, either.
The key, he explained, is not to pretend that you know what’s best for people. He didn’t need to teach Morium how to raise her family or care about her future. She already knew what was important to her. Like anyone, though, it was impossible for her see the big picture when she was bogged down in a daily economic struggle. At its best, his organization gives people the freedom to look beyond survival, to really living. Glancing around his office, he could think of perhaps 50 people who’d gone through that transition.
“Yeah, it’s been a good thing,” he said, sounding not as overjoyed as you might think.
More than celebrating, what really he wants to do is just see this thing keep growing.
Contact Stina Sieg: 384-9111
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