The Community Cloth is honored to be the beneficiary of a grant from the Mandy Kao Foundation, one of our initial supporters who helped fund a seed grant to launch The Cloth back in 2009! The Community Cloth is a microenterprise nonprofit, targeting economic, educational and social goals through the provision of seed grants, training, and peer support, and by expanding market opportunities for refugee women artisans.
Since our founding, the program has served over 60 artisans from various countries of origin, including Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Sudan, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, resulting in support of over 250 refugees (the women and their families). As of this year, Cloth sales have reached nearly $73,000, with 100% of the profits going back to the artisans. The women have been able to help their families pay bills, avoid eviction and buy additional groceries. But almost as important as the educational and economic benefits of the program, many find the peer support to be invaluable, expressing to us that they are “happy to have made new friends” through the project.
The Cloth became one of only ten organizations chosen to receive Leadership Houston’s “Leadership in Action” award for 2010, and has been featured on Fox 26 News, Great Day Houston (CBS affiliate), Channel 13 News (ABC affiliate), Eco-Ology on KPFT, Houston Fashion Week, and multiple times in the Houston Chronicle among other media outlets. We also now have five retail partners that carry the Cloth’s product line, and continue to organize “Tupperware-type events” where a supporter hosts an in-home event for their friends to shop Cloth products among friends.
With the extraordinary growth of the program this past year, the Mandy Kao Foundation offered a generous new grant to help expand staff support for the growing number of artisans, and the expanded level of support services we provide them. The future direction of the program is to continue recruiting additional artisans, expand our retail and online sales outlets and continue to improve our service offerings to the refugee community.
Please learn more about us by browsing through our website, or donate online here. To learn more about hosting your own Community Cloth “party/sales event”, please contact Roxanne Paiva at email@example.com.
April is National Volunteer Month, and The Community Cloth can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to highlight the wonderful work of two long-time volunteers who have been at the heart of who we are: Krista Scranton and Cyndee Gray. Both will be departing from Houston soon, and though we are sad to see them move away to start new adventures, we are grateful for the spirit of volunteerism they embodied and shared with us over the past few years. The following profiles capture Krista’s and Cyndee’s volunteer journeys. Farewell to two amazing volunteers, two amazing women, two amazing friends!
~Roxanne & Quynh-Anh
“I felt a desire to show the artisans that they were important, their talents admired, and their handicrafts unique and valuable.”
Krista Scranton is an experienced volunteer for The Community Cloth whose passion and excitement has led to serving in a number of different roles: co-facilitating Bhutanese groups, working at craft fairs and sales events, and even working as staff prior to the birth of her son.
Krista’s interest in the broader world was cultivated from a young age – as a “military brat”, she was born in Italy and lived in Germany. As an adult, Krista has spent time in Mexico, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Spain, Italy, and Greece. The multicultural focus of the Community Cloth fits perfectly with this interest; “I have always wanted to go to southeast Asia but until I have that opportunity, I am so fortunate to experience the unique Bhutanese culture and its traditions right here in Houston”.
Krista first learned of the Community Cloth while attending the Leadership Institute for Nonprofit Executives (LINE) at Rice University, where she and Cloth Co-Founder, Roxanne Paiva, were classmates and became good friends. Krista was intrigued by the idea of volunteering as an ESL instructor; “having lived and worked abroad, I understood the challenge of a language barrier and the time it takes to adjust to a new culture…I felt a desire to show the artisans that they were important, their talents admired, and their handicrafts unique and valuable.”
Krista’s professional background in mission work and psychology were a great fit for the Community Cloth. Through her work as a volunteer and staff, she has demonstrated and lived her values of compassion, caring for others, appreciation, trusting relationships, and gratitude. Krista has also been invaluable to Grace Presbyterian Church, The Micah Project, and every other endeavor she has pursued based upon a “culture of caring” she inherited from her parents. She and her husband Stacy welcomed baby Luke Sullivan Scranton into the world in December 2011.
Says Rhadika, one of the artisans Krista worked with, “I will never forget Krista for as long as I live.” Those of us at The Cloth who had the pleasure of Krista’s kind and loving friendship echo those sentiments exactly!
“We are here to empower them…but their lives are changed, as is mine, because they’ve received a measure of confidence…a measure of hope.”
Cyndee Gray has been committed to the mission and the women of the Community Cloth since reading an article about the Community Cloth’s Co-Founder Quynh-Anh McMahan in the Houston Chronicle several years ago. Serendipitously, the Cloth article was published during a time in her life that Cyndee describes as restless. She taught ESL at an elementary school level and also in corporate settings to business professionals from around the world. Cyndee also worked with the spouses of these professional to adjust to the changes involved in moving from countries of origin that include Thailand, China, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Vietnam, and Russia.
After years of this diverse and exciting work, Cyndee felt the need to expand. The Community Cloth provided Cyndee the ability to use the skills that she had mastered, but through a different lens and a different context. Through the Cloth, she has also been able to express her values of faith, independence, mutuality, and giving back the blessings that have been received. Cyndee has been a co-facilitator for The Community Cloth for several years now, and has volunteered in a number of capacities, from working one-on-one and in small groups with the artisans to sales events to product development.
Cyndee relays that she originally communicated with the artisans through a type of functional sign language – pointing, drawing explaining – which was made easier because “the women have a language that isn’t written, a heart language whose words are made up of life experiences” and this commonality has led her to learn from the women as well as teaching them. She is always impressed by the lengths the artisans go to improve the lives of their families, and how each artisan has a sense of hope for a better future and gratitude despite the inconceivable setbacks many have faced in their lives.
Cyndee is much more humble about the incredible work she does – much more humble than we are about her – but she does say that “the joy I get from knowing the artisans pays back 100 fold what I have put into the Community Cloth.”
She has several words of wisdom for would-be volunteers. The first is that it is a “wonderful way to receive as much as you get.” Cyndee feels, as we all do, that it is vital that each woman retains her culture, customs, and language. “We are not here to change their culture, we are here to empower them…but their lives are changed, as is mine, because they’ve received a measure of confidence…a measure of hope.”
Two Iraqi artisans Cyndee worked closely with, Amelia and Nada, both expressed great sadness when saying their goodbyes. We share in their tears and also in their best wishes for a gentle and caring person they came to befriend.
~Volunteer profiles written by Josh
If you’d like to start your volunteer journey with The Cloth, join us for our next Volunteer Information Session, Tuesday, May 8 (6:00-7:00pm) at the Baker Ripley Center. Click here for more details.
Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give. – Eleanor Roosevelt
If you scan the archives of National Public Radio (NPR), you will discover that Bhutan, and not Disney World, is the happiest place on Earth (the “It’s a Small World” ride doesn’t give anyone joy). Indeed, in 1972 Bhutan’s then king declared that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was an inaccurate way to measure a country’s overall success. He introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH), or a measure of how happy his subjects were. Using a complex survey developed by Canadian health epidemiologist Michael Pennock, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck utilized the Gross National Happiness to spearhead a massive overhaul to the tiny country, finding a harmonious balance between modernization and Buddhist beliefs.
The new concept proved successful, and Pennock has adapted the original survey to determine his own Canadian city’s contentment. The idea that happiness is an important and fundamental part of a country’s well-being is seen as almost revolutionary, and several publications have lovingly written on Bhutan’s happiness index. Last year artist Johnathan Harris launched “Balloons of Bhutan,” an online project that revisits the original 1972 survey, albeit in a more visual, less scientific manner. Harris went around the country and surveyed 117 Bhutanese citizens, asking them five basic questions related to their own bliss. For the last question—on a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your own happiness?—he gave the interviewee a correlating number of balloons. Nearly 600 photos of smiling faces greet you on the website, and one can’t help but admire the effort the country has made to ensure the merriment of its citizens.
This would be a great place to end the story; a small Himalayan kingdom, tucked between China and India, showing the rest of the world what it means to be happy. But something that Jonathan Harris, National Public Radio, and nearly every other media source neglects is that on the road to happiness, the Bhutanese monarchy imprisoned, tortured and ultimately expelled one-sixth of its population.
The Lhotshampa ethnic group began emigrating from Nepal to Bhutan in the nineteenth century, and settled largely in the south of the country. Their arrival was initially welcomed by the government, who saw them as a new source of tax revenue and means to cultivate the land, and in 1958 their descendants were given full citizenship rights. Bhutan slowly saw itself divide along ethnic and geographic lines, though the need for a cheap workforce in the 1960s and 1970s sustained the tolerance for Nepali groups in the country. However, as the popularity of Gross National Happiness endured, the king felt that the only way to achieve a truly united, happy nation (and to curb illegal immigration) was to expunge foreign national references.
In 1985, the second Bhutanese Citizenship Act was enacted, reinforcing Dzonghka as the national language and eliminating Nepali from the schools. A national dress code was enforced, requiring only the traditional dress of northern Bhutan; anyone caught wearing southern (or Nepali) garb was subject to arrest. Finally, it declared anyone whose family was not counted in the 1958 Citizenship Act illegal. This greatly impacted the south, and the Lhotshampa and other Nepali ethnic groups now lived in constant fear and control. The persecution escalated until the early 1990s, when one out of every six Bhutanese residents was forced to leave the country.
After forced removal and two decades in a refugee camp, surveying the happiness of Lhotshampa Bhutanese refugees would be unthinkable. And yet many of our artisans and their families are overflowing with felicity. It would be insulting to indicate that their lives are not full of worry and heartbreak, but whenever we meet, the laughter is infectious. This very joy is what inspired the creation of the Cloth, and what I think has lured in so many volunteers. Even on my worst, most stressful days, ten minutes with our artisans instantly turns it into a great one.
When the Bhutanese king married last year, all of my Lhotshampa friends on Facebook congratulated the son of the man who evicted them, rejoicing in his marriage and wishing him a happy life. I’m sure that if someone had offered, all would have gladly handed the king ten happiness balloons.
Sources: npr.org, wikipedia.org
Photosource: Jonathan Harris
Progress is unstoppable. It is a drumbeat to which we must all march. – Yann Martel, Life of Pi
During this holiday season it is right, or at least natural, that we should take time to reflect upon the blessings bestowed to us. One of the great blessings to The Community Cloth has been a year of progress, both for the organization and for the women with whom we are honored to call partners.
The Community Cloth as an entity has had a year of fantastic progress on several different fronts. We have grown tremendously in terms of outreach, sales and product development, and formalization. Progress in each of these areas has made The Community Cloth more impactful, relevant, and sustainable. Here are some of the highlights.
We launched this website early in 2011. We’ve blogged every month about different aspects of the products, cultures of origin, major events, and the interpersonal connections that are truly the joy of life. We’ve had several significant media mentions and have been featured at major events and even on television. We’ve increased our social media presence. We now have an etsy store to compliment our events and retail partners by creating an online touchpoint for sales and connection.
Sales have progressed tremendously this year. Because 100% of the proceeds go directly to the artisans, this infusion of revenue has helped create a reliable stream of income to add to the financial stability of the artisans and their families.
The Community Cloth is a program of Our Global Village, which became an independent nonprofit organization in late September. We will spare you the self-congratulations on successfully navigating through the IRS labyrinth, but suffice to say that Our Global Village, and therefore The Community Cloth, is now fully independent and we can pursue our best and most successful future aspirations. And you can join us by contributing your time, talent, or treasure – with the certainty that every minute and every cent contributed will come back to you tenfold. In fact, we’d be happy to relieve you of the burden of some of that treasure right now – you can now donate online at our website: http://ogvillage.org/get-involved/donate. With respect to the future, it would be trite to say the sky is the limit. But it truly is.
The business progress is much less important than the tremendous progress the women of The Community Cloth have made this year, which we will touch on in future blog posts. Globally, while the drum of progress may beat at a rhythm slower than we would choose, it is indeed unstoppable. Our artisans are refugees, most from Burma or Bhutan, meaning they were sponsored by the State department to seek refuge in America from oppression in their country of origin. As welcoming as Houston will always be to those who seek a better life, we look forward to a day where there will no longer be a need to seek refuge.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma in late November. She is the first Secretary of State to do so in 50 years, spurred by the Burmese government releasing 200 political prisoners, including the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now running for parliament in the upcoming elections. The U.S. has pledged $1.2 million in aid, but much more importantly is assessing Burma’s readiness to promote freedom and democratic reform. Burma has a long journey toward full openness and inclusion, but has taken a step – small, but significant. The drum beats slowly, but it does beat.
Progress is unstoppable. One day, perhaps in our lifetime, the word “refugee” may seem like an anachronism or historical artifact. Until that day, there is much work to be done, in Houston and around our entire global village. So, during this season of blessings, we count ours and look forward to the future.
“Gratitude is an art of painting an adversity into a lovely picture.” ~Kak Sri
As the season of gratitude arrives – and before the sometimes chaotic season of giving and receiving quickly follows – I wanted to pause and reflect upon the theme of thankfulness.
Over the last few years, I have experienced gratitude in its purest of forms, and the lessons on gratitude most striking to me are during my times with the refugee artisans. “Thank you” seems to be one of the first English phrases they pick up in their ESL classes, and a phrase they use freely, which doesn’t water down the value of their gratitude one bit. Each thank you is sincere and is accompanied by a smile that belies the fact that most came from a history of deplorable poverty, violence and persecution.
Here’s an example of their notion of gratitude: I’ve had many an opportunity to visit the artisans and their families in their humble homes. A typical visit entails them thanking me for visiting, for drinking the tea they’ve taken the time to prepare, for allowing them to host and serve me. What an amazing world this would be if we could all view gratitude as a natural part of the act of giving, and not only as an obligatory etiquette of receiving.
From these interactions, two insights on gratitude emerged for me: 1. Gratitude is an infinite and catalytic resource; one that brings forth and nurtures acts of giving and of receiving. 2. The spirit of gratitude is magnified when it comes from one who has experienced times when there were no gifts to be thankful for, other than the act of surviving. Indeed, our artisans are proof that “gratitude is an art of painting an adversity into a lovely picture.”
That “lovely picture” is the beautiful pieces of arts and crafts they produce and sell through the program certainly; but it is more so the “lovely picture” of a new community they have built by connecting to other refugee women and to the many individuals who’ve walked by their side, encouraging them.
One of my fondest memories of the program was at our very first artisan orientation session. Through an introductory exercise, we asked each artisan to tell us a little about herself. Time after time, we heard the familiar refrain of, “Hello, I am (name), I am from (country of origin).” But, then we’d hear, “and I am happy to have made new friends.” By joining The Cloth, they were, of course excited about the prospects of making needed supplemental income; but they seemed more excited to have connected to other women and “new friends.”
Over the last two years, The Cloth has morphed from a program into a true community. Whether a generous donor, a community or retail partner, or an amazing volunteer, all of you have contributed to the success of the program…and for that, we are so grateful!
Thank you for helping the refugees transition from giving thanks for the mere act of surviving to being able to “wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving (Kahlil Gibran).”