Feb 092011
Authors: Rachel Childs

Pounds of orange peels lay in the streets of Columbia after their insides have been juiced dry. The pungent smell of citrus permeates the air as locals scour the streets and remove the skins from the juicers’ stands.

Instead of being transferred to a dump, these peels will make dresses, hats and shoes for thousands of small wire dolls. Their smell will waft through a store instead of a wastebasket.

Muck brown oil drums that crowd Port-au-Prince, Haiti, are cut and carved into fierce, shining suns. They now hang on walls in stores and homes across the world.

Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit shop in the United States and Canada, buys these crafts to better the artisan communities that create them.

“When you are paid fairly, you find dignity and purpose in your work,” said Juanita Fox, spokesperson for Ten Thousand Villages, in an e-mail to the Collegian.

In 2008, the Ethisphere Institute and Forbes Magazine named Ten Thousand Villages as one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies.”

Now it is one of the largest Alternative Trade Organizations (an organization that uses fair trade to develop impoverished countries) and sells its treasures in 74 store locations and more than 250 stores carry its products.

The idea for Ten Thousand Villages started in 1946 when businesswoman Edna Byler went to Puerto Rico for a Mennonite Central Committee sewing class. She began selling crafts she brought back from oversees to her friends and her local Mennonite church.

“I have a lot of respect for this particular group because they really walk their talk. When they go into these countries they don’t proselytize … they go in just to help,” said Wendy Poppen, manager of the Ten Thousand Villages in Fort Collins.

The store is tucked away in Old Town Square, but inside is a tour of the world.

It smells of spices. Overhead Latin music provided by a Putomayo World Music compilation CD beats away. Customers’ eyes are drawn to bright yellows, reds and greens blended with dark browns and blacks, covering the store in an exotic earth-toned pallet.

Prices are kept fairly low, ranging from about $1 to $250 because the store’s employment is volunteer-based. The minimum time is two 4-hour shifts a month, and tasks include basic cleaning and maintenance of the store.

“I just like that it’s handmade goods and it goes straight back to the people that made them,” said Alex Krcmarik, 18, who has been volunteering since November 2009.

The organization has ties to 38 countries across the world and village cooperatives that struggle every day to pay for simple items like food and water.

It also practices fair trade with its goods, a larger portion of the profits are given to the artisans to help impoverished communities. The wealth is dispersed around the communities, creating their own small businesses in the process.

“We’re trying to build communities and livelihoods,” Poppen said.

Most of the items are created from recyclable and abundant materials where they are available, sometimes from what people consider trash.

Baskets made from kaisa grass, a thick green plant that grows wildly in Bangladesh line back shelves and countertops. A rainbow of handbags, alpaca fur scarves and mirror frames from old magazines line the back row.

More eclectic wares include stationery made of Sri Lankan elephant feces and mouse-shaped cheese knives from India. A closer look at a pair of earrings reveals they are actually cut from colored soda cans. One of their best-selling items is a golf ball-sized three-legged good luck pig made of clay from Chile.

The orange dolls come from an organization called Sapia in Columbia that was started by a former doctor. She took it upon herself to use discarded orange peels from the popular juice stands and make them into art for the past 10 years. There are 32 artisans in Sapia who work primarily in places of displacement and poverty.

“Even if you don’t come in here to buy stuff, just educate yourself on what’s going on around the world and just how beautiful things are,” Poppen said.

Poppen has managed the store since its debut in 2001. She was impressed by the organization’s dedication to community and empowering others.

Byler’s story showed her the power that one person can have on the world.

Staff writer Rachel Childs can be reached at verve@collegian.com.

Unique finds at ten thousand villages

  • Circle Dance Sculpture:
    What: A sculpture made from Kisii stone
    Artisan: Ugundu Society of Kenya
    Country: Kenya
  • Lovebirds Cinnamon Box:
    What: Cinnamon bark carved into a Valentine’s Day themed box
    Artisan: Mai Vietnamese Handicrafts
    Country: Vietnam
  • Re-Cycle Frame:
    What: Picture frame made from a recycled bike chain.
    Artisan: Noah’s Ark Int’l Exports
    Country: India
  • Terra Cotta Pig Bowl:
    What: A handcrafted bowl with pig features
    Artisan: COMPARTE
    Country: Chile
  • Terra Cotta Water Whistle:
    What: Whistle mimics bird noises when filled with water and blown
    Artisan: Prescraft
    Country: Cameroon

For prices please visit www.tenthousandvillages.com.

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