For the past year, despite the impact of COVID-19, dozens of poor villagers in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions have still managed to handcraft thousands of colorful and unique works of art and household items now on display and being sold through Nov. 22 at the First Presbyterian Church of Charleston’s annual Hope Village.
Unsure as to whether artisans were even producing their works or whether it would be possible in the midst of the pandemic to get products made halfway around the globe, Hope Village organizers began contacting vendors and Fair Trade partners over the summer, asking what their situation was.
Soon, the stories came pouring in.
“They are in just dire circumstances all around the world. They have no safety nets. Like in Ghana. There’s no unemployment. There’s nothing for them. So their market had dried up, no one was buying from them,” said Dina Mohler, Hope Village co-chair.
“We’ve got one vendor in Bethlehem. They rely on tourist trade. And Easter’s big for them. Well, no one came at Easter.”
Some businesses had gone under.
Some villagers couldn’t get supplies in. Others couldn’t get their crafts out.
There were natural disasters, like a rock slide that destroyed the homes of several crafters in Guatemala.
And there were man-made challenges, like the corporate representative who offered artisans in Africa pennies on the dollar for their woven baskets and then — after they tried to negotiate a living wage — shared their patterns and designs with competitors in other villages .
“All of our vendors work with Fair Trade organizations, which means they guarantee the proceeds go back directly to the artisans,” said Kim Stilwell, also a co-chair of the event.
She waved her arm around the gymnasium-turned-craft shop in the First Presbyterian Activities Building, pointing from one table to the next.
“This is from Mayan Hands and it’s felted wool animals. All of the batik cloth is Global Mamas, from Africa. The olive oil is from Palestine. And this year we have olive oil soap — we’ve been trying to get that for three years. People love it,” she said. There are silk scarves, scented candles, Christmas ornaments and so much more.
Manned by a small group of volunteers, Hope Village has been moved from a series of smaller rooms to the gymnasium in the church activities building, with masks required and a limit on the number of shoppers allowed in at one time. Both women said the mission project does not generate funds for the church. Instead, it helps those in desperate situations make a better life for themselves and their families, providing food, education, a pathway out of sex trafficking, and — in Kenya, where the artisans are also subsistence farmers — enough funds for individual irrigation systems to water their crops in the midst of a devastating drought.
“It makes you feel good about what you’re doing for these artisans. After a while, over the years, you start to feel like you know them,” Mohler said.
“There’s a purpose. You didn’t just find something at the mall. You’re buying something that is meaningful. It’s handcrafted and the money is going back to actually support the person who made it.”
The First Presbyterian Church of Charleston is located at 16 Leon Sullivan Way. Hope Village will be open Nov. 14 through Nov. 22, except for Nov. 18 when it will be closed for deep cleaning. The hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. except for Sundays, when the hours are noon to 3 p.m. For more information, visit the First Presby WV Facebook page, the church website at www.firstpresby.com/hope-village or call 304-343-8961.