Over the past few years, many of us have been confronted with the fact that there are definitely bad ways to help people. For example, we’ve found out
…how not to pack our Operation Christmas Child boxes (my own additions: avoid stuffed animals because they only help spread lice, but paper and pencils are always enjoyed),
…that we should stop sending our crap to the poor (amen!),
and also learned a lot more about When Helping Hurts.
Oh, and then we also found out how poorly coffee plantation workers are typically treated, but that buying coffee labeled as “fair trade” would help alleviate that… until word started spreading that “fair trade” wasn’t necessarily so fair after all.
Yikes. It’s all enough to make us want to throw our crap in the dump and be done with it. (Oops, are we running out of space in our landfills?) No, seriously!
Living abroad helped us realize that one of the best ways to help the poor is to offer them safe and empowering avenues to support their own families. While in Nicaragua, my friend Cari shared her vision to develop a trade school to teach poor women skills they can use to put food on their tables. I was honored to be a part of the first such program, where we taught 21 women sewing and small business skills. In fact, as I reflect now on our years there, those classes stand out strongly in my memory. I can’t wait to see Cari’s vision accomplished, and hope to be a continued part of it as it happens.
Now that I’m back in the U.S., I am often asked how others can participate in this vision. Prayer and financial support are definitely needed to help our dream of a vocational school in Nicaragua. Beyond that, I tell people to consider purchasing products made by women like those we help in Nicaragua. Of course, there are some great organizations to help you do this, and some not-so-great ones.
Thus far, one of the most successful I’ve seen is a program from Mercy House called Fair Trade Friday.
As Cari and I quickly found out, managing inventory is a particularly tough aspect of trying to sell hand-made items, like those typically made by artisans in poor areas. If you’re buying the items piece-meal from the women as they are made, you might end up with 40 pairs of earrings one week and 5 the next. That makes it really hard to manage orders and allow people to buy each item on demand. Also, the quality and craftsmanship varies so greatly, it can be difficult to guarantee the item purchased looks exactly like the one promised.
Mercy House has come up with a great way to work around this problem.
They purchase a large quantity of items, then package 3-4 different items (such as stylish accessories, organic soap, coffee, etc.) into shipments they call Fair Trade Friday boxes. You never know exactly what you’re going to get in a Fair Trade Friday box, but that is half the fun! Inside each box, you might find an item you love, something your sister or daughter steals, and another to give as a gift. (Samples of boxes are shown below.)
But the best part? Well the best part is that 100% of the proceeds go back to empower the poor artisans trying to make a living. Mercy House is a non-profit itself, and says the price of their products is dictated by the wage of the artisan, the cost of materials, and shipping. There is no “middle man” taking a cut.
Buyers can purchase a single, stand-alone box ($35), or sign up for a monthly subscription ($31.99/month). They actually offer two subscription choices: earrings only or the surprise box I mentioned previously. (The later is currently sold out, but you can submit your contact info to be alerted when a subscription is available.)
I’m a little jealous, if I must admit it. I wish I had thought of this for the ladies we’ve taught to sew in Nicaragua! It’s a brilliant way to get the product into the hands of people who value it, and give the artisans a way to put food on the table. Through it all, Mercy House is maintaining relationships with the artisans, in an effort to eventually get them to see their worth in God’s eyes.
What a beautiful picture of love and mercy.