One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about one woman who created a bucket list to fulfill her lifelong dreams and wound up creating jobs for over 60 women in Peru. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
Before Terisa Brooks Huddleston’s feet could reach the pedals of her mother’s Singer 401 sewing machine, she was sitting on Mom’s lap, putting together the perfect little sundress. The sundress was so small it was made out of two kitchen towels with a ribbon that tied on the shoulders. So by the time she was old enough to handle a pair of scissors, her parents weren’t completely surprised when she got, well, creative.
“I thought the sleeves on my father’s dress shirt would make a lovely outfit for my cat,” she laughed. “I have to say, in my defense, it did come out pretty cute!”
And while her mother convinced her that shopping for fabric in the family closets probably wasn’t such a good idea, she continued to encourage the little designer’s interest, so much so, that by the third grade, Terisa was making all her own school clothes. What no one could have known was that 42 years later, those early lessons would change Terisa’s life and the lives of women around the world.
“When I was approaching 50, and my youngest was turning 18,” Terisa explained, “I decided I was going to redefine my life. I called it my year of jubilee. And I made a list of 100 dreams. They ranged from a book I wanted to read to seeing the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena. The first 25 were easy to come up with, but by the time I reached 60, I was really digging deep!”
But once the list was complete, Terisa realized it told a story. Everything on it fit into three categories: First, survival -- which to her meant finding ways to continue living the life she loved in Napa Valley, California. Next came creativity -- which was natural for a woman who had taken her childhood skills and spun them into a dressmaking business and the final thread she discovered was a deep hope to make society better.
And then, as if she’d written the script for her next chapter, the opportunities simply began to appear.
“The week before my 50th birthday,” Teresa recalled, “I was invited over to one of my client’s homes. She and her husband were doing amazing work in Peru with Project New Hope International and Creation Peru. The country was ruled by a communistic party until 12 years ago and the people there don’t have the history to know how to run businesses the way we do. They had gone over and helped to set up a dairy, a cuy (guinea pig) farm and a training program to teach textile arts to the women who lived in the barrios of Trujillo, a coastal city where the average income is $10 to $15 a month."
“The women were doing beautiful work, but the problem was, they had to go into the city to sell their scarves and sweaters, and their children were left alone.”
The United States established a free trade agreement with Peru in 2006, and Terisa’s friends were hoping that with her knowledge of fabric and design, they could find a way to help the women sell their unique wares to women in America.
“I knew immediately that this was what I was meant to do. I called my husband from their driveway and said, ‘Honey, I’m going to Peru!’ And all he said was, ‘Are you coming home first or should I just check the mailbox?’”
And with that, Terisa began her “year of jubilee.” She went to the barrios of Trujillo and met the women who were living in tiny huts. Many of their husbands had left to find work in the city and never returned -- leaving the women to care for their children alone. Terisa looked at their wares and knew if she could just make a few changes in the materials they used and tweak their designs, so they’d better suit the tastes of American women, she could help them build a brand and better lives.
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That’s when she decided to go where no one -- not even her friends who had been working in Peru for years, had gone before. The program’s project coordinator, Violeta, had tracked down two “companies” in Lima, who were wholesaling Alpaca -- a material that’s as warm as wool and as soft as cashmere.
“When the taxi driver said he didn’t want to take us straight through a certain area, we were a little suspect,” Terisa remembered, “but we kept going. We passed through a set of gates and everywhere we looked, there were dilapidated buildings and heaps of garbage everywhere. And there was a group of skinny men, just staring at us. Then the gate we entered closed behind us. It was one of those moments where you think I’ve seen this in movies before and there’s never a good ending.
“Those same men surrounded us and walked us into the office, where a man came out with a spool of yarn and an old color card. On our way out, I turned around and saw someone on top of the roof with a gun, which kind of made me think they were selling more than just Alpaca. Needless to say, we decided to go take a look at the other company.”
Fortunately their next stop was a real yarn store, and with a micro-finance loan in place, Terisa was able to help the women acquire the materials they needed to take their knitting, crocheting, crewel and embroidery skills to a new level.
She then returned to Napa Valley and began working with their designs -- suggesting that they add or subtract a few inches or use a color that American women might like -- and then asked the women to set their own prices.
“These women can look at a sketch and reproduce it instantly,” Terisa said. “So Violeta brought them the yarn and the patterns and then sent us some finished pieces. And with a little back and forth, we knew we were ready to put them in business.”
So, in July of 2011, Terisa launched Our Hands For Hope, an ecommerce business, where she sells the scarves, shawls, sweaters, hats and throws created by the budding entrepreneurs. And with a special program that she calls “Cuddlegrams,” for every throw sold, Terisa donates a blanket to a child living in the barrios.
“So many people are helping us make this happen. Just a few weeks ago the postal service in Trujillo went on strike and we had 200 pounds of knits all ready to ship. Violeta found six people who were on their way back from a mission trip, people we’ve never met, and when they heard about our dilemma, they brought back the pieces in their own suitcases.”
With the help of so many hands, Terisa has been able to extend her reach to retail outlets in the Napa Valley area, including wineries like Robert Mondavi and Hess, as well as hotel boutiques such as Westend Napa in the Avia Hotel. Next on her list is to create a group of “Alpacateers,” women who will throw home parties and trunk shows around the country.
“We’ve been able to keep 60 women knitting and crocheting consistently over the last year,“ Terisa continued, “and they’ve all been able to raise their income to a level that’s considered close to middle-class in Peru. And they’re helping each other. One of the women needed surgery and couldn’t afford it, so the group sent us a note with the last order asking if each of them could knit one extra wrap, so they could donate the money to her. That tells the whole story -- this is about women helping women, and now with the 'Alpacateers' we’ll be able to help women here at home take care of their families too.
“When I started my list of 100 dreams, I had no idea where it would take me, but I’m hoping that it’s just the beginning of making many other women’s dreams come true as well.”
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