I traveled to Haiti in the summer of 2011 with my family to begin directing a non-profit in the growing town of Pignon. During a bumpy truck ride from the Port-Au-Prince airport to the northern mountains, our Haitian director Peter shared with me his vision to provide jobs for women who were part of his church. He had a burden for these families that consistently came to him for money and food.
Peter wanted a longer-term solution than simply giving handouts to his congregants. This is the typical model for relief — especially in a place like Haiti which is often noted as the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Donated water, supplies, clothes, and more pour into the country for free distribution.
This kind of relief is necessary in times of emergency like after a natural disaster, but it’s not sustainable long term. This handout model creates a dependency and often works against poverty alleviation.
Peter discovered a fair trade jewelry company in Port-Au-Prince that used recycled materials to craft their products. He befriended the American woman who started it, and she invited him to bring some of the women from the mountains to learn how to make jewelry. He chose a few women and sent them for training with hopes of making them leaders to train other women in the church.
That day, as our truck blazed a trail through the dust and gravel, Peter asked me if I would help the women start their own business. My heart leapt when I first heard his idea. I never imagined I would have the chance in Haiti to use my passion for creativity and my love for making jewelry.
I grew up frequenting craft stores and creating jewelry to give as gifts to friends and family. While visiting colleges during my junior year of high school, my mama teased me that I would probably make my college choice based on proximity to the best bead store. Creativity was in my bones. I felt most alive when I was creating something with my hands.
That summer in Haiti I gathered the first group of artisans – nine women from Pignon who stepped up to learn how to roll their own beads from upcycled cereal boxes. We formed The Haitian Bead Project. Many learned quickly. I showed them how to arrange their beads into necklaces and twist wire to make earrings. We worked together to improve the quality of our creations and to find designs that would be on trend for buyers in the United States.
Teaching these women the skill of making jewelry opened up two important doors for them — the dignity of work and the power of creativity.
God designed humans to work, which sets us apart from all other creatures. The dignity of work is central to our value as human beings. Work can provide a sense of purpose, honor, and hope for the future. When people develop marketable skills and find jobs, they can provide for themselves and their families. They are no longer shamed into begging and reaching for handouts.
Over time I discovered my passion was sharing with my Haitian sisters how they were each made in the image of God. They were created by the Creator to create and to work. When they rolled beads, fashioned bracelets, and designed new earrings, their work reflected God’s glory to others. When women came to visit and admired their work or purchased a piece at a market, my friends were valued as artisans. Work was then an act of worship to the Creator. In a time when women are often forced to work for unfair wages or to sell their bodies to provide for their families, they were given the gift of dignity.
Toward the end of that summer I gathered our group of artisans, which had grown to several dozen. We took photos of each woman and created a unique tag for the products they made. Each tag helped create a personal connection to the artisan’s story.
One by one I had the ladies pose against the turquoise backdrop of the school building nearby. Our day concluded with interviews. These mamas and grandmas, daughters and friends, shared details about their lives. I learned Linoise was getting married soon. Genise told me with a sparkle in her dark eyes that she was pregnant. Nadia shared her burden to feed and care for six children.
I asked how they might use their earnings. This was an invitation to dream. The women were bashful at first, but little by little their countenances changed. One woman longed to send her children to a trade school. Another woman wanted to go back to school herself. Another lady hoped to build her own home. Another young woman wanted to start her own business.
As their dreams unfolded, I realized that transformation was happening right before my eyes. They were beginning to imagine a better life for themselves and their families. These women, who were living in abject poverty by the world’s standards, were experiencing a new sense of hope. God’s daughters were clothed in dignity.
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
Proverbs 31:25 (NIV)
This article was originally published at www.incourage.me.