Last month I wrote a story about volunteering at Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit organization with stores that sell fair trade and eco-friendly items from around the world. Plenty of reasonably priced goods are available -- pretty onyx candle holders from Pakistan for $12, Vietnamese paperweights made of hand-lacquered stone (40 days to make) for $7, etc. There are higher-priced items too -- like $300 quilts and copper bowls, $70 necklaces, -- but to me, those price tags seems comparable to what you'd pay for these goods in any other store, except here you know where the items are coming from and that the workers are really benefiting.
This is a slightly abridged version of the article:
Handicraft Stores Make a World of Difference
From the outside, Ten Thousand Villages looks like any other store along the cozy streets of Rockville Town Square. Stepping inside, however, reveals a vibrant web of colors and stories from faraway lands told through handmade crafts.Unique tableware, home décor, stationary, linens and jewelry are just some of the products you’ll find nestled on the shop’s over-brimming displays.
But Ten Thousand Villages is more than just a chain of stores. It’s a nonprofit organization devoted to providing a livable and dependable source of income to the underprivileged artists who hand-make its products in developing nations — a concept known as “fair trade.”
From humble beginnings out of founder Edna Ruth Byler’s car trunk six decades ago, it’s developed into one of North America’s largest fair trade organizations, with more than 80 stores nationwide and partnerships with dozens of artisan groups in more than 30 countries.
Volunteers staff stores
To reduce overhead costs and keep products affordably priced, the organization uses a significant number of volunteers to supplement the small number of paid staff in each store.
“Working at Ten Thousand Villages is very rewarding because…no matter how tired you are, you know you’re working for someone disadvantaged, and without our store network this person might not have an income at all,” said store manager Bea Strattner, who’s been with the Rockville store since its April 2007 opening.
Strattner said most of her store’s volunteers started out as customers, liked the atmosphere, and wanted to make a more significant contribution. There are many tasks for volunteers to work on, from helping customers up front to unpacking products in the back.
Retired nurse Carole McWilliams, a Rockville-resident who’s volunteered at the store for several months, cited the opportunity to give back to the community and to promote a non-profit organization as two factors that drew her to Ten Thousand Villages. Though she has plenty to do — “Retirement is busier than you think it is!” — she finds the experience worthwhile and would recommend it to others.
“It’s a good place to spend some time. It’s very positive,” the 71-year-old said, adding praise for her coworkers, the customers and the products.
Caring for the crafters
As part of its fair trade mission, Ten Thousand Villages’ business practices are designed to support economic, environmental and social sustainability in developing countries. For example, artisans are paid about 50 percent of their wages for a product upfront, when the organization places its order, Strattner said.
This gives workers the funds to live on and create those goods. It also means their livelihood isn’t totally dependent on how a product sells.
Because it’s to everyone’s advantage that the products sell, the organization works closely with artisans to develop goods that are true to their region yet will also appeal to North American tastes.
On the environmental front, the organization sells several products made from recycled materials. A rooster-shaped ornament from Columbia is made of dried orange peels; recycled magazines are used for coasters from a women’s cooperative in the Philippines; a choker made from soda tabs is created by disabled artists in Kenya.
Volunteers don’t need a lot of retail experience to get involved. Sales associate Roberta Staat, 61, who began as a volunteer, said she would never have seen herself going into sales because she doesn’t like “hawking” products.
Knowing the stories behind the wares, however, gets her very excited about the merchandise. Plus, as an art teacher, she sees her work at the store as inherently tied to her career as well as her interest in social justice.
“To find a way for artists in other countries to be respectable and economically independent” is a very powerful thing, she said.
That feeling is passed on to customers, who “want to be a part of the system, helping to support this mercantile system,” Staat added. “It’s guilt-free shopping.”
There are two local Ten Thousand Villages stores in Maryland's Washington suburbs: 4959 Elm St. in Bethesda, (301) 718-3465; and at 107 Gibbs St., Unit D, at the Row at Rockville Town Square in Rockville, (301) 340-7122. There is one local store in Virginia: 915 King St. in Alexandria, (703) 684-1435. For more information online, visit www.tenthousandvillages.com.
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