Napa Valley Register March 20 2012, 0 Comments

Two women lend a hand for hope

Napa Valley Register


When Terisa Brooks-Huddleston and Joanne Birtcher learned about the deprivation of women and children in the Peruvian barrios, their hearts went out to them — and so did their commitment.

With no means of support, these Peruvian women and their children live in small shacks made of cardboard, or anything else they can find to shelter their families from the elements.

To empower these women, who otherwise might have neither hope nor power, the two Napa women formed Our Hands For Hope.

The business offers these women the opportunity to become entrepreneurs by acting as an outlet for their artisanal skills with yarn. The Peruvian women are paid immediately for creating ponchos, shrugs, hats, throws, wraps, scarves, shawls, sweaters, blankets and other items. Their work is purchased for the retail market in the United States via Our Hands for Hope.

“We offer beautiful, high-quality hand-knit items while focusing on creating and maintaining a humanitarian effort,” said Brooks-Huddleston. “It’s all about connecting women, connecting cultures and connecting business,” she said.

Birtcher and her husband, Ron Birtcher, had been going to Peru for seven years and talked about their visits with Brooks-Huddleston. After raising five children with her husband, artist Dave Huddleston, and doing custom design and sewing for 30 years, Brooks-Huddleston said she was ready to “redefine” her life.

Brooks-Huddleston traveled with the Birtchers to Peru to meet with the artisans and find wholesale suppliers for the Alpaca yarn they use.

“When I saw the women and children, I felt an instant connection,” Brooks-Huddleston said. “I just knew this was what I was supposed to be doing.”

Upon returning to Napa, the women joined forces to help the impoverished Peruvian women.

Our Hands of Hope was started in 2010 with an initial investment of $2,500, plus time and talent donated by friends and family members. The Napa women paid their Peruvian counterparts to create a dozen samples. After the first order, they were able to recover their initial costs, they said.

A Peruvian woman, Violeta Silva, works as a liaison between the women in the barrios and the Napa partners. The women making items for Our Hands of Hope are paid four times more for their knitted items than they would make if they had other jobs, Brooks-Huddleston said. Bank accounts have been opened for the artists to deposit their wages, she added.

After the second order, “Violeta said the women were excited and talking about what they’d do with the money,” Brooks-Huddleston said. “We’re achieving exactly what we had set out to do: Give them hope for their future.”

Because of Silva’s work with the women, cultural differences haven’t hurt the business, the partners said. Differences are mainly in terminology, said Brooks-Huddleston — for example, “what we call a ‘ruffle,’ they call ‘tissue.’”

Currently, 45 to 60 women consistently provide items made with their textile arts, including crochet, knit, macramé, orquilla, crewel and embroidery, Brooks-Huddleston said. Fifteen of these women are training others in the barrios in textile arts.

Organizers hope a core of 400 women will become entrepreneurs on their own, earning a sustainable income — and from them, trainers will emerge to impart their skills to other women, Brooks-Huddleston said.

Approximately 1,000 items have been made and later sold in the U.S. The business also offers a blanket program called Cuddle Grams: For every blanket sold, a blanket is donated to a child in need.

Eventually, the partners would like to take this business model — of women training women — into other countries.

“The key to Third World countries is the women,” Brooks-Huddleston said. “They are the ones raising the children. They have a strong desire to better the lives of their families.”