An unexpected connection
"On September 17, Simon, Alison and I left for our grand adventure ..."
When Sam Carpenter and Alison Schumacher and their 2-year-old son, Simon, visited Fermín Vilcapoma in his Lima workshop, it wasn't the first time the Peruvian jewelry maker had met someone from Indiana.
"After hearing that we lived in Indianapolis, he told us he'd visited Indiana University in Bloomington lastJanuary at the invitation of a college group," Sam writes in one of his many missives for Manos Amigas, a fair trade organization based in Lima.
"I went into a fair trade shop there and saw some of my products," Vilcapoma said of his time in Bloomington.
That fair trade shop is Global Gifts and Sam Carpenter is its executive director.
Carpenter and his family returned in August from a year-long sabbatical spent in Peru, meeting local artisans and working with fair trade exporter Manos Amigas - it means Friendly Hands - to understand the fair trade process at a deeper level.
What is fair trade?
Shoppers find the label "fair trade" emblazoned across all manner of goods these days. But that wasn't true in 1988, when Global Gifts was founded. Although the very first fair trade organizations were formed in the United States after World War II, fair trade as a movement has experienced sizable growth and exposure in only the last 10 years.
"This sounds really simple, but most people do not know that fairly traded items means fair wages for the workers along with proper working conditions, which means no sweatshops," says Cullen Webster, a volunteer at the Global Gifts store on Mass Ave.
In simple terms, fair trade is a movement that supports higher standards for producers of goods in developing countries. It's an economic, social and sustainability-minded system that stabilizes the balance between producers and consumers. It seeks to boost the living and working conditions of the producers while educating the consumer. Transparency between buyer and producer is the goal, and the result is international trade equity.
Although the average consumer may come across fair trade products daily - especially in supermarkets where the coffee, chocolate, sugar and tea markets continue to expand with new fair trade certifications - there is a perfect place to shop exclusively for fair trade products locally.
The gift that gives twice
"We like to think that when someone purchases something from the store, they're giving the gift that gives twice," says Global Gifts volunteer and founding member Mary Liechty. "Not only are they giving a gift to their loved one, but you're giving the gift of income for the family that made the product."
More than 40 countries are represented inside each store, where items are grouped into clusters of beautiful, colorful displays. Right now, as Global Gifts prepares for its busiest time of the year, long strings of hanging ornaments dangle in the front window. Stacks of cozy knit scarves and hats line one wall, and handmade jewelry sparkles on another.
Sam and Alison lead me around the store, highlighting handicrafts from Peru, including a gorgeous, delicate bracelet made of butterfly wings encased in glass and linked by silver. The finger puppets displayed on the NUVO cover and the nativities that decorate many corners of the store are also products of Peru.
The Mass Ave storefront is a comfortable space with a friendly face stationed at the register. Born out of the Indianapolis Mennonite Church 22 years ago, the stores have a close group of volunteers. Although they're no longer officially affliated with the Mennonite Church, many volunteers still come from the church.
Sam Carpenter wasn't there in the beginning - he was studying the social sciences field of peace and conflict studies in Northern Ireland and living in the town of Derry. In 1999, Derry became a fair trade town, which means it's a town that has made a commitment to supporting fair trade and using products with the fair trade mark. A city or a region can do so, too. (Bloomington, where one of the Global Gifts stores is located, is fairly close to becoming a fair trade town. Log on to NUVO.net to read about their progress.)
After learning about fair trade in Derry, Sam ended his studies by writing a thesis about the movement.
That same interest led him to Global Gifts, where he came aboard in 2001 as a manager of Global Gifts' store in Nora. As the nonprofit expanded, Carpenter soon assumed the role of executive director.
But even before becoming executive director, Carpenter had planned to take a long-term trip to explore fair trade issues. His wife, Alison, who left her position at Girls, Inc. of Greater Indianapolis after their son, Simon, was born, was just as game. So, they started to plan.
The Carpenter-Schumacher family left Indiana in September 2011. After packing up their toddler, they moved out of their Rocky Ripple home, which was rented to another family, stored their belongings and carried just six suitcases with them.
"I remember thinking - when we were getting ready to leave and it was a really hectic time because we were moving stores and essentially opening a new store for Global Gifts [in Bloomington] - that when I got on the plane, there would be this big sigh of relief and have this nice relaxed experience," says Sam. "It wasn't like that. There wasn't ever a period of not having responsibility, because of Simon."
They didn't anticipate the impact Simon would have on their trip.
"Simon has blond hair - white blond hair," Alison says. "So he stood out; people would always say, 'Ay, que lindo!' ('Ah, how cute!' about Simon, and reach over and tousle his hair. Once we started our volunteer work, and we were going through different parts of Lima in a lot of places where they don't typically see tourists, let alone gringos, he really drew a lot of attention. I really think that people took us under their wing because they loved Simon."
"So many times, we would be visiting artisans and there would be kids around and Simon would be playing with the kids while we talked," says Alison.
The blondie jumped into interactions with artisans, their families, strangers in the park, vendors at the local market, everywhere.
"I am amazed at the ease at which Simon makes friends. And his smile seems to win folks over with no trouble at all," Sam wrote on Nov. 2 of last year on his blog.
Simon was a tiny, blond, human icebreaker.
"That was a really good door-opener," says Sam. "He would play with the kids and the artisans would smile and like that. It made it easier for us to [begin to work with them]."
Getting to the artisans was no easy task. Lima is a large, sprawling metropolis where one-third of the population of the country resides.
"Lima is so big," Alison says. "Official estimates are around 8 or 9 million, but there's a lot of people who aren't counted because they're living in these shanty towns in the middle of the city where people have taken over a sand dune or a mountain that has zero services. But they've just squatted there, and over time the government will build stairs or [start] running electrical lines, and over a long period of time it just becomes part of the city. But those people are just not counted [in official censuses], but when you put those folks in, it's really like 13 or 14 million people."
The Carpenter-Schumacher family stayed in Miraflores, one of 43 densely populated districts in the city.
"We lived in a part of the city where most of the expats lived," says Alison. "If you worked for the embassy, our neighborhood was where they would assign housing."
The expat community, while not unwelcoming, wasn't sharing the same kind of experience as the Carpenter-Schumacher family.
"We had a big affection for Lima and Peru; we saw parts of Lima and Peru that most people never ever see, and a lot of poverty," Alison says. "The expat community, housing was provided for them, a car was provided for them, a driver was provided for them. It was very possible for them to live in a bubble. I felt uncomfortable ... sometimes because they would say things like, 'I can't wait to get out of this hellhole' or 'I can't wait to get back to civilization.' I would feel so offended for the people of Lima that we were living with and near and appreciating the opportunity to get to know. This is civilization, for 14 million people."
The huge expanse of the city and the complicated mass of public transport - the Carpenter-Schumacher family relied on public transportation almost exclusively during their time in Lima - meant traveling to visit the artisans was a huge part of the job.
"Routinely, it would take a couple hours getting there, and we'd spend a couple hours with the artisans, and then spend a couple hours getting back," says Alison. "That was just how it was. You were just sitting on a bus with everybody else sitting on a bus."
Their home base was Manos Amigas, a small operation founded by a brother and sister - Yannina and Roberto Meza - and their foreign-born spouses. A few women are employed part-time at the organization, but the two families take on the bulk of the work. These two families live in an apartment in the same building where the Carpenter-Schumacher family were living - and their office was just across the street.
During their time in Peru, Alison and Sam split a work-share position, assisting Yannina and Roberto in the office, managing their exports, visiting the artisans and even building the organization a new website.
And there's a lot to do. Manos Amigas works with more than 70 family workshops and six artisan associations, and donates 20 percent of its profits to social welfare projects including scholarships and a food program for poor youth in Peru.*
"Our main project was doing these stories," Sam says. "If we do a day of artisan visits, visiting two or three workshops in a day, it would take us several days to compile our notes and cull our photos from several hundred, then place them within the story. We edited each other's work. It would take us about a week to create the story."
They also helped create a catalogue for the non-profit. It organizes the goods that Manos Amigas offers from artisans into a much easier format for potential clients (like Global Gifts and Ten Thousand Villages, another fair trade organization) to select from.
When speaking to me about their time in Peru, Sam and Alison trade words back and forth about their travels, finishing each other thoughts easily. It is obvious that the sabbatical, although officially set up for Sam's job, was truly a family experience. They returned rejuvenated and ready to impact Indianapolis positively with the lessons from their travels.
Operating a nonprofit often necessitates a "go, go, go" mentality. Global Gifts depends on more than 100 volunteers to maintain their operation. It's hard work - but every volunteer I've spoken to seems to consider their time at Global Gifts a gift to themselves.
"[It's rewarding] knowing we are helping women send their children to school, knowing we are helping families put food on the table, knowing women have status in communities they would otherwise not have status in simply because they can bring in money to the household," says founding member and current board member Liechty.
Volunteers and board members like Liechty have spent the last several weeks preparing for the holiday rush; the stores are flush with shoppers ready to find the perfect gift for their mothers, teachers, siblings, friends, loved ones. It's the perfect place to find something special.
"I wish people knew that fair trade is just as fashionable and affordable as Target or any other big box store nine times out of 10," volunteer Beth Sturiano says. "It's so easy these days to get handmade, beautiful and unique gifts that also come with an amazing back story - that's fair trade in 2012."
Sturiano found volunteering at Global Gifts a way to continue helping people in developing countries after finishing her term in the Peace Corps.
"Though I'm living in the U.S., volunteering at Global Gifts makes me feel like I'm making a contribution, even if it's a small one, to help people out of poverty - even to teach our Indy customers about the rest of the world. I think that's what Global Gifts does for the world and for Indy: It promotes cross-cultural education," says Sturiano.
"I think Global Gifts can teach people to shop with a conscience," says volunteer Maribeth Ables. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to buy pretty things, but why not help someone sustain a living while doing so?"
Sam and Alison know big things are coming for the store and their family. Sam hints at the opening of a fourth Global Gifts location in Indiana in 2014. One of Alison's goals is to maintain her Spanish skills, not just for her own benefit, but to preserve Simon's burgeoning bilingualism. And they'll try to discover ways Global Gifts can work even more closely with the artisans they met in Peru and others like them around the world.
Back in Peru
In the end, it all comes back to Fermín Vilcapoma, the Peruvian artisan.
"How amazing that Fermín was in Indiana and saw his products displayed and sold at [our] store, and a year later [we are] at his workshop, seeing where the products he sells originate and how they are created," Sam wrote days after meeting Vilcapoma and discovering their connection. "It felt like finding the missing link of a riddle I had forgotten to solve."
*Details on Manos Amigas provided by SERRV, a nonprofit worldwide trade and development organization.
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