Kim Stilwell sighed. With a week to go, she was still missing a box full of hope from Bethlehem — the one in Palestine.
“The U.S. post office here thought it was still in Bethlehem, but they said no, it got out,” she said from a crowded room at the First Presbyterian Church.
She really wanted that box.
“It’s the one where we have our Phoenician glass, and it’s just beautiful,” she added.
The fragile pieces — which did eventually make their way from the City of David more than 6,000 miles to Charleston, West Virginia — were hand-blown by artists skilled enough to add multiple colors during the creation process. Sure to be a popular item at the church’s annual Hope Village, they were curated through a fair-trade vendor that finds outlets for selling hand-crafted work all over the world.
A fair trade vendor, said Stilwell, meets criteria to ensure that artisans get a fair price for their work, rather than the bulk of profit going to a middle-man or commercial retail outlet.
First Presby, as it’s known, launched Hope Village roughly 10 years ago to help facilitate sales that can support artists and, often, their families — some in this country, many in developing nations around the world. This year’s Village spans three rooms crowded with hand-crafted items, everything from olive wood nativity sets and exquisite hand-woven baskets to beads, candles, oils, batik clothing, ornaments, jewelry and much, much more.
Except for Thanksgiving Day, the boutique will be open Thursdays through Sundays for three weekends, starting this Thursday, Nov. 21.
“We don’t buy from a wholesaler that gets it from 18 different countries,” Stilwell said. “We buy from someone who’s working with the artisans on the ground, so more of the money goes back to them.”
The point, she said, is to help lift the artisans out of poverty. Their goal is to work with vendors who provide fair wages — and more.
“Our profile, really historically, has been they have to do something else for the artists as well, whether it’s education, housing, job training, they have to do something else over and above just buying and distributing and selling their products,” she said.
The sales add up — and make a life-changing difference, she said.
“We sold enough [from fair trade vendor] Baskets of Africa two years ago that we fed the weavers who made those baskets, we fed their families, for a year,” she said, still in awe of the impact Hope Village has had.
Fair trade organizations often work with victims of human and sex trafficking operations, and disabled artists unable to support themselves through regular jobs. They are often started by people who’ve taken a mission trip to a foreign country and find they want to do more to help the people they’ve met even after they’ve returned home.
“Most of these fair trade organizations are founded by people who’ve been over there doing mission work and they come back here and they say, ‘You know, the things that people make over there are beautiful. How do we get them here? How do we help these people lift themselves out of poverty?’ And so they start a fair trade organization,” said Stilwell.
That’s also how Hope Village came to be. Members of the First Presbyterian congregation have taken mission trips themselves, traveling all over the world. They have seen the very real struggles first hand.
“Oh, the abject poverty just blows your mind,” said Stilwell.
“We went to Nicaragua one year and we went into a dump and there were 200 people — 200 families — living in the dump. And, you know houses that had tin roofs and cardboard and all that. They actually had a school in the dump and you’re piling into the dump on your bus and there’s dead cow carcasses and babies in diapers running around all of this. And you’re thinking, ‘How on Earth,’ you know?”
They, too, faced the nagging sense that they could do more. Hope Village was started by the mission director, Sue Webster, and Mary Kay Boyle.
It relies on all-volunteer labor so that all proceeds go back to the artists. The church has cut the number of open days for Hope Village in an effort to make it more manageable for workers, and are aiming to bring in the same funds as in previous years in a shorter time frame.
“The mission was to help people, help as much as you can. And it’s not all overseas. We have one charity that’s right here in West Virginia,” said Stilwell, referring to Zera House in McDowell County.
A handful of items are moderately pricey — over $100 for a long, long strand of pearls, for example. Most are much lower than that, including some in the single-digit range. Every sale makes a difference, said Stilwell, in part because a small amount still affords so much in a developing country.
“Five dollars can help, especially when you sell enough of it,” she said. “In a third-world country it all matters.”