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Ten Thousand Villages

by Stephanie Eberly

Ten Thousand Villages

Featuring inspired items with inspiring origins, Ten Thousand Villages cultivates altruism through global awareness.

Prior to researching and prodding around for information, I thought that Ten Thousand Villages was just like any other retail store — selling little knickknacks and home décor that could be picked up at any big box chain. Boy was I wrong! I took a quick trip — or so I thought it would be — to the store on Pennsylvania Avenue and was amazed at the diverse array of cultures, colors, materials, and talents portrayed through the pieces on the shelves. I wound up spending a couple of hours just walking around the store, taking in everything that was there, and learning the stories behind the unique pieces.

For 36 years, the staff and friendly volunteers of the Ten Thousand Villages store in Hagerstown has been appealing to customers with their passion for unique handcrafted products, and the artisans who create them. Manager Cherina Shank and assistant manager Beth Zimmerman effortlessly bare their passion while assisting and explaining the backstory to the goods for sale, and the company as a whole.

On The Road To The Bigger Picture

Years before the Hagerstown location was even a thought, Edna Ruth Byler began the company from the trunk of her car, selling items made by women in Puerto Rico to friends and family. From those humble, travelingsalesman origins, the idea has inflated to over 79 nonprofit retail locations throughout the U.S. The company is also one of the founding members of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO).

Fair trade, simply put, is an organized movement focused on the agreement to pay workers a fair wage for his or her work. Buyers from Ten Thousand Villages travel around the world to villages and towns located in 35 different countries in order to reach out to local artisans. With long-term relationships in mind, the company works with artisan groups to determine a price that covers material cost and labor, all the while ensuring that the artisans receive a price that they feel covers everything that goes into the items’ production. People love the idea of fair trade, and respond quite positively to it, says Beth.

Ten Thousand Villages’ dedication to long-term fair trade relationships has a significant impact on the artisans, as well as the people coming into the store. Fair trade is the jumping off point for the artisans, leading to skills development, education, healthcare and empowerment, among other positive impacts. It’s not uncommon for a customer to get excited when they realize their money is going toward something much more than a simple business transaction, says Beth.

From Bombs To Baubles

As I continued my trek around the store, I came to understand people’s enthusiasm. I came upon a necklace labeled “Resurrection Tree Necklace,” but something else also caught my eye as it glinted in the light. Appropriately named “Jazz Age Earrings,” a set of gold triangles dangled from the cardstock holder. Their simple yet dashing design suggested the glamour and elegance of the Jazz Age. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the Rajana Association, which is situated in the war-torn country of Cambodia, created both pieces.

This artistan group is known for their use of recycled bomb casings in production of their jewlery. The artisans take undetonated bombs, detonate them, and turn the remains into symbols of peace. Since 1995, more than 122 families in dozens of villages throughout the country have found work through Rajana. With the fair wages earned, people are able to receive a steady income, learn a skilled trade, and afford health services and education for themselves as well their families. The artisans’ enthusiasm in being part of the fair trade movement and their passion for their traditions are clearly shown through their finely handcrafted pieces of jewelry.

The symbolism of turning bombs into jewelry — making something beautiful from a tool fundamentally designed for death and destruction — is not lost on the creators of these works of art. The Cambodian artisans of Rajana Association feel that such work “helps maintain and rebuild Cambodia’s cultural traditions, damaged in the country’s wars.” It’s how the people find hope, whether through their involvement in fair trade received, or through the healing process of creating jewelry out of something so inherently harmful. At first glance, the earrings and necklace may resemble something found at any retail establishment; but knowing the heartfelt story behind them, their allure grows tenfold.

You don’t have to travel around the world or trek through the mountains of South America in order to help someone in need. Making that decision to startsomewhere — such as buying fair trade coffee or purchasing small items from Ten Thousand Villages — can make such a huge difference in the lives of the artisans and farmers, states Cherina. Each step in the fair trade process plays a large role in making sure that artisans in remote countries and villages are treated the way we would want to be treated. As Beth says, “Fair trade is a movement that is so much bigger than any of us. We are one piece in a much bigger picture, and each of us has an important role to play.”

With a vision to see that “one day all artisans in the developing countries will earn a fair wage, be treated with dignity and respect, and be able to live a life of quality,” Ten Thousand Villages continues to touch and amaze customers and artists alike with their mission of equality. At the forefront of the global fair trade movement, they are capturing what it means to cross boundaries and connect people across the world through a diversity of stories, cultures and traditions while creating long-term, sustainable opportunities for each of their artisans. Investing in the lives of artists and their families around the world has never been easier.

View more articles from the November/December 2014 issue