The beads come in a variety of sizes, from small to large. All are brightly colored - vibrant yellow, soulful blue, cheerful pink. It's hard to believe that such small, seemingly inconsequential objects could influence and improve the lives of thousands of people, but through BeadforLife, that's exactly what they do.
BeadforLife is a charity organization that benefits women in Uganda living in extreme poverty. Founded eight years ago, the program teaches woman how to make colorful beads from recycled paper, stringing them into bracelets and necklaces. BeadforLife then pays them and transports the beads around the world to be sold at Bead Parties to raise money for the Ugandan women and educate the buyers about poverty.
Each woman works with BeadforLife for 18 months, not only making beads and earning money (moving up to $7 to $9 a day rather than $1 or $2), but learning how to become self-sufficient. They start savings accounts and receive entrepreneurial and vocational training that allows them to start their own businesses, and continue autonomously from the program.
"When they graduate, they not only have a savings account and income, but a way to sustain themselves," said Heather Ditillo, North American and European Program Director for BeadforLife. "We really are a [poverty] eradication program in that we invest in women and give them training and income so they can invest it back into their families and communities."
The Colorado connection
BeadforLife spreads the products produced by the Ugandan women through events called Bead Parties. Hosted by volunteers throughout America and Europe, Bead Parties sell the beads and other products, and then send the profits back to Uganda. They also serve to educate people about what life in extreme poverty is like, and what conscientious citizens can do to help.
The headquarters for North America is in Boulder, out of which a small shop sells the beads and other products (such as shea butter, lotion and lip balm) straight from Uganda.
They also coordinate bead sales through their volunteers. Mary Lloyd Jamison of Tabernash is one such person, serving as a Community Partner for BeadforLife. Community partners have extra responsibilities, including attending a training session to educate themselves about the program.
In recognition of her efforts and hosting of numerous Bead Parties, Jamison was contacted directly by the Boulder office and asked to become a Community Partner.
"We just love Mary," said Ditillo. "She's such a fabulous representative."
"A bead party is kind of like a Tupperware party," Jamison explained. "Except you don't earn any points or free jewelry, you're just doing it because you want to help."
In addition to volunteering and hosting bead programs, Jamison took her dedication to helping one step further and in April 2012 joined other BeadforLife volunteers on a trip to Uganda.
"That was really a great experience," said Jamison, "getting to actually meet women who'd been in their program."
Jamison particularly praised the way BeadforLife not only gave the women a way to earn money, but encouraged them to go out on their own and create their own business, and gave them the tools to do so. One woman Jamison met had gone on to start her own lumber business.
"The main thing I would want to share is that it was a privilege to meet these women firsthand and see what they have accomplished through the BeadforLife program," Jamison said. "BeadforLife's goal is sustainability, not handouts, and that is a key to its success."
Jamison is not the only one who has been inspired by the BeadforLife program. Ditillo, currently working out of the Boulder office, took her first BeadforLife trip to Uganda several years ago. At the time it was her sister involved with the charity who asked her to come along as company. What Ditillo experienced changed her forever.
"I never expected it to impact me the way that it did," said Ditillo. "It was life-changing."
When she returned home (at that time in Pittsburgh, Pa.), she started volunteering with the program. Within six months she had helped sell $10,000 worth of beads. When the position in Boulder opened up in 2008, she made the move, and now works in Colorado as the program director for both North America and Europe.
"It's just amazing," she said.