The Open Arms Shop...

by Guest Blog on January 2nd, 2011

In January, 2010, I took a trip to Uganda. I focused much of my time visiting orphanages in the area, feeling inspired by the work done there. By chance (but really, is anything by chance?), I also spent time with a group of refugee women from the Acholi tribe. These women had been abused by rebel forces resulting in 80% of them being HIV positive. I marveled at the resilience of their spirits as we sang and danced together. Their dignity in the face of trials moved me deeply. I left them knowing I wanted to do something to help refugee women. But how could I do it from the States?

Upon returning to Austin, I was drawn to the rapidly growing yet largely invisible refugee population in my own community. I had completed a training program to help their families and began enrolling their children in school. As I got to know one refugee family in particular, their experience with fear and isolation convinced me the time to act was now and the place to help was Austin, Texas.

I set up a meeting with the director of Refugee Services of Texas and asked the question, “What is the biggest need for the refugees living in our community?” Her answer kick-started this social enterprise. She said that most of the refugees end up in jobs where they are overworked and underpaid and get caught in a cycle of dependency and despair. What they need, she explained, are sustainable jobs that provide a livable wage. So, I set out to start a business that would employ refugee women at a wage that would allow them to provide for their families……a company with a conscience!

I started asking some of my friends if they wanted to join the adventure of starting such a company and was pleased but not surprised at their positive responses. Lacey Strake was the first to say “yes”, which fit well with her heart and the fact we’d discussed doing something like this over 10 years ago. (We even referred to it as Open Arms in those long-ago conversations.) We were quickly joined by several other friends and seemingly overnight, we had a seven-woman team overflowing with passion and complementary talents. It was like watching the perfect puzzle pieces fall into place. Our team launched into the unique challenges of creating a business that offers a compelling product, pays a reasonable wage and matches the skills and experience of our refugee employees.
The product……..
As we wracked our brains about what to make and sell, we researched and spent time on product development for several ideas that ended up falling short. My husband, Robert, and I even got into a nightly ritual of “business brainstorming.” (I know…very romantic). One night, with our brains tired from going down too many rabbit trails, we asked the simple question: “What do people have a lot of…but don’t really need?” The answer came like a lightning bolt…T-SHIRTS! As our minds raced, we talked about how t-shirts and refugees share a similar story: created with hope, but often tossed aside. With Open Arms, refugees (and countless shirts) will get a new start, a new lease on life.

From the start, we determined to do business differently. What if our company offered enrichment opportunities where the employees could participate in brown bag lunches with experts on relevant subjects? What if they had the option to attend an ESL class during the workday? What if we offered a childcare co-op for our mothers so they could bring their children to work since childcare is often cost-prohibitive? What if we offered job-share opportunities for those who need to get home to be with their kids? What if we instituted an early literacy program for pre-school age children of our employees, giving them a solid start as they enter school? What if we invited the community to join us for lunch once a month to talk about poverty issues and ways to help break the cycle of poverty? What if…….

I’m convinced the passion and work ethic of our team (Alexia, Diane, Katherine, Lacey, Linda, and Trina…..not to mention the spouses who have been roped into countless hours of work on our behalf) and our growing network of friends and supporters will make Open Arms happen.

Together, we can change the world.


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