The Value of a Volunteer: Perspectives from Community Cloth Volunteers!

Community Cloth artisans hail from all parts of the world and create a variety of beautiful goods, but all have one main goal: self-improvement and making a better life for themselves. None of this would be possible without the help of Community Cloth volunteers, who also come from different areas and have different experiences, but have come together to help these women. The artisans and volunteers have built meaningful relationships and impacted each other tremendously. Emily and Krista share their experiences as volunteers with The Community Cloth.

Volunteer Perspective: Emily Newsome

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Emily and Artisans

How did you get involved?

I’ve been involved with Interfaith Ministries for the past three years delivering monthly non-perishable items to seniors who don’t quite qualify for the Meals on Wheels program and pet food to seniors who are in the Meals on Wheels program. In the summer of 2011, IM passed on a flyer from The Community Cloth where they were seeking volunteers. I already had several volunteer obligations, including Interfaith Ministries, so I wasn’t looking to get too involved, with the exception of light admin duties or light marketing. But my mindset changed entirely when I met Roxanne, Quynh-Anh and Krista. Roxanne’s stories of meeting these amazing people as she travelled, combined
with Krista and Quynh-Anh’s passion had me on board for whatever they needed.

What kinds of events have you attended?

I mostly work one-on-one with my group of artisans, but I’ve also worked a number of sales events. My sales events last year were a bit lighter than my first year, thanks to our increase in volunteers, which we hope to continue for this year. My favorite sales event to work is WHAM (Winter Holiday Art Market). The event takes place at Winter Street Studios, which is a truly unique spot for artists and creative minds. In working this event, I’ve met a lot of unique
artists and I think we touch a clientele who might otherwise overlook The Community Cloth.

What kind of impact did your involvement have on the refugee artisans?

I hope that I’ve had a positive impact on my artisans. From guiding them on what textures and colors to use, to driving them to and from events, so they can socialize in a place away from their homes where they can’t really rest because they have such a serving attitude. But I think they’ve had a greater impact on me than I will ever have on them. It never ceases to amaze me the selfless and caring attitudes that they consistently have, which I sometimes have to talk myself into and often fail to achieve. The moment I walk into one of their homes, they serve me with juice or hot tea. They make sure that I am the most comfortable person in their home, even if that means they sit on the floor when chairs run out. I moved very recently and having tapped out my friends and family time and again for help moving, I ended up hiring movers. I went over to one of my artisans homes the morning of the move and told them I couldn’t stay very long because I had to meet the moving truck. Her husband was shocked and immediately offered to round up some of his friends to help me move. That’s what they do – help each other out no matter the circumstances. I had several artisans move this year and though I was glad they were going to a place that makes them happy, it was heartbreaking to watch them go. Their families felt like my families and one of their youngest
girls kept asking if sister (referring to me) was going with us. It truly is a family/group/community mentality, which I think we could use a lot more of in the states. My favorite quote from one of my artisans, Muna is “we have to share our knowledge with each other. Sharing with each other is loving each other.” They remind me not to get too caught up in the little things – life should be fun and dancing all the time.

What encouragement do you have for others who are thinking of
volunteering/hosting?

My best advice is to do something where you feel rewarded and can use your skills. I love being a co-facilitator. I was drawn to the co-facilitator role because my grandmother taught me at an early age how to crochet. I often feel like I’m carrying on her legacy by using the skills she taught me – though my artisans are far more talented than I’ll ever be. And most importantly, it’s fun. The Community Cloth is such a great organization, in that there are so many aspects to
volunteer in – marketing, co-facilitating, community outreach, etc. – so you are sure to find your niche. And by no means do you need to know how to crochet or knit to be a co-facilitator. Just be willing to give your time and heart and you’ll get a bounty in return.

What is your profession/livelihood?

I’m a single 20 something female who works as a corporate trainer. (kind of like teaching but with adults). No kids – unless you count the four legged ones. :)

What is a fun memory you have of working with The Cloth or with the
refugee artisans?

I have a ton of wonderful memories, but one of the best is from my very first outing with The Community Cloth. I picked up my group of four ladies and we drove to Nieman Marcus in hopes of showing them what colors and textures would be popular for the season. The entire car ride was super quiet – it amazes me that they were ever shy around me. When we got to the store, we met up with Roxanne, Nicci and several other artisans. We walked around together a bit looking at things and all of the sudden I turn around to make sure my group was still with me and I see Roxanne and Durga dancing with each other…in the middle of Nieman Marcus. They were laughing so hard and I knew this whole thing was going to be a rewarding experience.

Do you have a favorite product the refugees make?

My favorite product is the Waldo hats that my artisan Muna makes. They are so simple but super cute. Fun for kids and a bit of whimsy for adults.

 

Volunteer Perspective: Krista Scranton

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How did you get involved?

While completing a certification in non-profit management through the LINE program at Rice, I had the good fortune of meeting and becoming friends with a wonderful person. Some of the readers may know her…The One Foundation founder, Roxanne Paiva. Once she started teaching English at Sun Blossom Mountain apartments to Burmese refugees, she invited me along. The beginning of The Community Cloth was in the works with some of the students asking about how they could get supplies to practice their craft of weaving.

Why did you choose to support The Community Cloth?

Once I met a few of the women and the families in the program seeking to better their lives and expand their community in a new place, I knew I would give what time and energy I could to help. I was eager to grow, to learn,
and to get to know the city of Houston, one of the largest resettlement cities in the U.S.

What kind of event did you have & where?

I mostly volunteered as a co-facilitator with the knitting artisans and volunteered at sales events. I did co-host a holiday Scentsy and Cloth party with a friend that was a lot of fun! Any time you get a group of women (men too!)
together and share about what it means to the Cloth artisans to sell even one scarf, shopping ensues. Not to mention how unique and beautiful each piece is. All the Cloth artisans are doing is seeking to make this city their home, make friends, better the lives of their children and help them succeed in school, learn and grow.
What kind of impact did your involvement have on the refugee artisans?

 

I must say, they impacted me much more! Almost a year and a half later, I still get to talk on the phone to a few of the artisans I worked closely with. All I did was become a friend, believe in them, give them advice on what kind of things to knit, spend time with them in their homes, get to know their children and hear their stories, drive them to training events, sales events, and go shopping for supplies.

What is your profession/livelihood?

I am a mom to my almost two year old son. Before I got married and moved to Houston with my husband, I was a Spanish teacher. For the past several years I have worked in non-profit administration and communications.

What is a fun memory you have of working with The Cloth or with the
refugee artisans?

There were so many! I loved to sit and have tea with them and let them teach me a few words in their language. It was always great to see their smiles when they handed me a bag of items they had finished knitting or when we were able to sell those items and hand them 100% of the profit.
Do you have a favorite product the refugees make?

The product line has grown so much since the beginning. The jewelry looks amazing. My favorites are the knit scarves, baby hats, and ponchos.

Cloth Receives Gift From Mandy Kao Foundation

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 roxanne@ogvillage.org.

Volunteers are love in motion!

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.

The Happiest Place on Earth?

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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.

-Kate

Sources: npr.org, wikipedia.org
Photosource: Jonathan Harris

The Drumbeat of Progress

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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.

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