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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hot, hot, hot

As a group, we learn as we go along. Here at A Little Something, we're making a lot of notes. The latest would be: No more events that take place on AstroTurf. No unshaded events in July. Label the boxes. Hang the banner on the canopy before raising it to its full height and you realize the tallest person in the group is 5' 4". Have a lot of safety pins and S-hooks on hand. Figure out why the women are so resistant to using a crimp tool.

The list goes on. We have another list, too:
Try every event until we find what works best for us. Involve the girls. Don't be shy about asking for volunteers to help work the sales. Don't forget: Lots of people want to help; they're just waiting to be asked.

The event we attended on Sunday was challenging in some ways, but a delightful surprise in others. The event itself was faith-based in nature, and we weren't sure how our project would fit in. Since our project is an offshoot of the CRESL In-Home tutoring Program, though, it seemed like a no-brainer to have both groups represented.

I have never spent any quality time on AstroTurf before. It's...bizarre. We were very careful not to drag the canopy or tables across the fake grass as we positioned everything during setup. Susan brought three of the Somali Bantu teen girls with her, and together, we made a great team. We just weren't fast enough setting up.

We got the jewelry part of the booth set up, but before we could arrange everything for the home tutoring program's side of the booth, we were flooded with customers. The cyclists from the Sea to Sea bike tour were very happy, indeed, to be able to buy beautiful, meaningful souvenirs from Denver that were not only special but that could be easily tucked into the tiny bit of storage the cyclists had available. Ah, we were selling the right thing!

Throughout the morning, our booth was filled with visitors. Some came to shop, while others came simply to find out what we were all about. Many had heard of the home tutoring program and wanted to know how they could help. Many of our customers were very generous not only in their purchases, but also in telling us to "keep the change" as we wrote up their sales.

We've had our share of events where few people showed an interest in what we were trying to accomplish. They saw only merchandise and didn't wish to go beyond that. Sunday was different, though. Susan and I were educators and advocates, and we appreciated the opportunity to teach others about the positive parts of the federal refugee resettlement program.

Did I mention it was hot on Sunday? My all-things-sports expert informed me that on a sunny day, the temperature on the football field would be about ten degrees hotter than ambient temperature elsewhere. Indeed. The temperature in Denver was 97 degrees, but at Englewood High School, it was about 107 degrees on the field. Mercy.

Susan never, ever complains, but I easily make up for that personality trait. I tried not to fuss about the heat too much, but I was very uncomfortable. As it turns out, the event wrapped up early. The heat made me start thinking that there must be something fundamentally wrong with me to keep spending so much of my free time volunteering for this cause. I definitely had a few minutes of, "Why do we even bother..." since it was almost unbearably hot out. I looked at all of the stuff we had to pack up and all I could think was, "I just don't want to do this."

Almost on cue, a group of about seven or eight people seemed to materialize out of nowhere. One of them called out, "Hi! Do you need some help getting packed up and loaded?" And there was our salvation. Many hands really do make light work. We got the booth taken care of and my car loaded in a fraction of time it normally takes.

I don't even know how much money we actually made. I'm still too tired to put on my accountant hat. It doesn't matter. I mean, the women will be happy to be paid, but I know I speak for Susan and myself when I say that the day had other contributions for us. To know that we got people thinking about the refugee situation here and worldwide, to know that we may have recruited volunteers or even inspired someone to volunteer at a resettlement agency or a school is payment enough.

We both meet a lot of people in the course of our day, but some of the friendliest and most sincere we've ever met were with us on the blistering green AstroTurf on Sunday.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thanks, Sara!

A special thank-you to Sara at the Softflex Company. Sara arranged for a generous (as in large) donation of Softflex beading wire for the Bead Women of A Little Something. Wire is usually one of our biggest expenses, so we are particularly appreciative of Sara's kind gesture.

Thanks, Sara!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Come see us in Englewood on July 27

Our next sale will be:

Sea to Sea Bike Tour--Denver Rally
Sunday, July 27
Englewood High School
3800 S. Logan St.
Englewood, Colorado

9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
and then
11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Please note that there is a one-hour church service starting at 10:30 and the booth area might not be open at that time.

The Sea To Sea Bike tour includes more than 200 bicyclists riding across the United States (and part of Canada) from Puget Sound to the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The purpose of the tour is to raise awareness of and to inspire others to work to end the cycle of poverty locally, nationally, and globally. To learn more about the tour and its purpose, visit

A Little Something was invited to participate in this event because of our mission and commitment to empowerment through education and self-sufficiency. The rally is not a crafts fair or festival like those we normally attend; rather, it is meant to bring people together to learn about and connect with volunteer opportunities that build supportive communites and programs that contribute to ending the cycle of poverty.

Sharon (who is a former Very Serious Cyclist herself) will be wearing two hats at once and hoping it's not too hot, as she is the volunteer coordinator for the Colorado Refugee English as a Second Language In-Home Tutoring Program and as a member of Team A Little Something. If you're not busy next Sunday morning, stop in and maybe buy a nice necklace or a woven bag, or just chat with us about why we do what we do. Of course, if you'd like to be a home tutor here in Denver, Sharon would really like to talk to you!

Since this event will be relatively small, it would be a good time for you to come and shop with us--take your time, try things on...We hope to see you there.

We were our own best customers

It's probably something that every veteran crafts seller already knows: Sometimes, even the best planned events aren't as successful as we expect them to be. In this case, on Sunday we participated in an arts and music festival in the city's largest park.

We made a checklist:
  1. Jewelry? check.
  2. Weaving? check
  3. Knitted items? check
  4. Display? check
  5. Banner? check
  6. Cooler full of bottled water? check
The festival should have been great, considering the location, time of day, and overlap with another event. It just didn't turn out that way. It was a very hot weekend--102 degrees in the park--and the event sort of fizzled in the sizzle.

We sold a few things to the festival goers, and then our helpers started showing up. Slavica, who oversees the ESL program at Emily Griffith, bought a beautiful traditional woven Karen bag, but missed out on a darling red charm bracelet that Hajia bought from Haiffaa. Jaime bought a scarf and a necklace. Cathryn looked at everything and spent quite a bit of time seriously considering a woven Karen blouse and skirt. All in all, those of us who were there to work at the booth did the bulk of the shopping.

We are lucky to have access to a new EZ-Up canopy and as of this weekend, a brand-new banner. This may seem inconsequential, but these things really do help us look more professional. More important, I drive a Jeep, and although gas prices will do what they will do, this is the official A Little Something haul-it-all vehicle. As long as this project goes on, I cannot get rid of the Liberty. It is the only vehicle of those owned among us that is long enough to haul the EZ-Up, plus accommodate all of the other things that go into creating a mini-boutique in the middle of a field.

The booth looked great, we had plenty of help late in the day, and everything was on course for a profitable day, but in the end, we only sold a few items. It was just too hot, and it was the third or fourth consecutive day of just too hot. We went through almost a case of bottled water, plus some Gatorade for the electrolytes.

All was not lost, though. Since business was slow, we had a chance to fine-tune the displays and walk around a bit to check out the competition. Jaime spent most of the day tagging all of the new jewelry and reuniting earring and necklace sets.

We get to do this again next week, albeit on a much smaller scale. Let's hope for strong sales, lots of volunteer recruitment, and many opportunities to educate visitors about refugee resettlement and the A Little Something project.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Introducing...More dynamic women!

We've talked about it for almost a year. We talked about it some more. We tested the waters with some sample products. This week we finally had our plans in place and so we were able to formally launch the next part of A Little Something: The Karen Weavers' Cooperative.

That name is still under construction as we will surely have more than just ethnic Karen women from Burma in our fiber arts group. We hope to eventually have other Burmese ethnic groups, as well as weavers and knitters from Nepal and Bhutan. (more on that in a future post).

Today we scheduled our first informational meetings for the women. Things got off to a somewhat discouraging start when our first meeting went completely unattended. Jaime and I, along with our translator, Margaret Htoo, decided not to let this influence us too much. We drove across town for the second scheduled meeting. This time, things went better.

Margaret, who is a weaver herself (and a little dynamo!), left Jaime and I at the steps of the apartment building where the meeting was to take place. She went around the neighborhood and knocked on doors, gathering up prospective participants and asking them to remind others that it was time to meet. As Jaime and I were chatting on the steps of the building, I looked up to see Margaret half a block away, with a small train of Burmese women in tow. Having escorted her first group to us, she set off once again to shepherd a few more to our part of the street.

I am normally a person who prepares her comments, who makes notes on index cards (middle-aged memory lapses--ugh), and who has an agenda for every meeting. Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's my insomnia-induced fatigue, but I decided to just wing it. That seemed OK until we went inside and the women filed into the room. I stood in the room and realized I had no idea how to approach this group.

We have known the African women for a few years, and I, for one, am more familiar with them personally and culturally. As I set to work assembling a small photo display, I hoped that Jaime and I would explain the project in a way that would engage the women's interest and not in a way that would leave them thinking we were going to exploit them.

My worries were unfounded. The Burmese women do not harbor the trust issues that we encountered with our foundation group. They were polite and curious, they laughed at all of my jokes (and I give lots of credit to Margaret for being able to translate the nuances of my humor), and they nodded often as we explained the details of the project.

As I took a break from talking, Jaime took over and as she spoke, I looked around the room. We had seven women there for our first meeting. They range in age from 15 to 62. Some are educated, some are not. Three are so quiet, I could not hear them introduce themselves, although I was standing only a foot away. Margaret speaks English very well, our veteran ALS member, Htee Ku Paw, is a solid intermediate speaker, and the rest of the group comes in at zero English. A couple of the women have been here since last summer whereas two others arrived only last week. All of these women lived at least a decade of their lives in the Mae La refugee camp.

I don't know that if I had been relocated only a week ago that I would be up for joining a group of any kind. In fact, I would probably still be recovering from jet lag. Not these women. They are eager to get going.

When Jaime and I finished our part of the presentation, we asked the women if they had questions. They looked at each other. They looked at us. They looked at us. They looked at Margaret. Finally, Ko Gay said something very brief to Margaret. Margaret translated: "They want to know when they can start."

At this point, the women all started chatting at once. There was a lot of hand gesturing in the air and discussion among the whole group. Margaret leaned over and said, "They're talking about where they can weave and how they can set up their looms. In Burma and Thailand, we lived in bamboo houses, so you could tie the loom onto a post on any wall. It's not that easy here." (click here to see a slide show of Karen weavers in a refugee camp in Thailand.)

I had a laugh at my own expense. I've been thinking about the details of this project for a long time, and I have a vision of the many things we can do. I know that the Karen weave with a variety of fibers, and many spin their own. Traditionally, the weavers use homemade vegetable dyes to hand-color each skein of silk or cotton. I have envisioned us all working together outside of one of the apartment buildings, having "dye days" and warping fiber, making skeins, and building looms. Margaret's comment had just brought me back to reality with a big thud. Forget finding a community workspace; we need to find a way to use backstrap looms in modern Denver apartments!

As the meeting wound down, Jaime made a somewhat humorous observation. When we meet with the African women, the meetings are noisy and boisterous. There is spirited debate, and we are bombarded with questions. Side conversations go on while we're talking, it's hard to stay on topic, and every point has to be considered from many sides and with many "what ifs."

The Karen women, on the other hand, listened quietly, inquired politely, paid attention, and trusted us without question. Jaime and I realized that we hadn't ever had an A Little Something meeting that was so...subdued. Things are going to get interesting when the whole group is together. Furthermore, we've found that if we plan things more than a week or so in advance with the core group, they forget about those events when the scheduled day arrives. Last-minute wrangling works best. Margaret, on the other hand, very politely admonished us for not giving more lead time in getting the word out about the meetings. She recommended--several times--that in the future, we plan ahead.

Although there were only seven women at the meeting today, we know that there are at least seven more who wanted to be there but who had appointments or English class in the morning. In addition, there are other Karen women who don't weave but who wish to apprentice, and a few more who don't know any crafts yet, but want to learn to make jewelry.

Something is happening to our project--excitement is growing. It feels like we're on the verge of something much bigger. I think we're about to...bloom!

(The newest ALS members, in order pictured: Margaret Htoo; Paw Ku Thay; Hai Gay Moo; Paw Pah; Ko Gay; Than Myint Yee.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Dispatch from the dining room floor

The other day, I sat on my dining room floor (the current official headquarters of A Little Something) and started going through the latest batch of necklaces and earrings the women turned in. Last week, Anna and Jaime went visiting, and spent some time with Sharifo and with our newest member, Sahara, and Sahara's daughters.

As I sat there on the cool hardwood, I looked over the work and I was stunned to realize that Sahara and Company had started making very pretty, truly original designs right off the bat. This group has an innate sense of design and color that is right-on. The technical skills need some work, but that will come with time and practice. In the meantime, I plan on inviting some friends over for afternoon iced tea and cookies, and when everyone is comfortable, I'll pull out the jewelry so we can make adjustments and then tag and bag. Hee hee.

I digress. After Anna and Jaime finished their rounds, Anna called me to let me know she had some things to drop off. She sounded very excited on the phone--and that's saying something for someone whose natural speech patterns tend toward the very, very mellow. Anna hurriedly told me that she couldn't wait for me to see Sharifo's latest work--it was, for sure, the prettiest work she had produced so far. We thought that Sharifo would take a break or stop altogether once her baby was born, but having a newborn hasn't slowed her down one bit! Her creativity seems to have gone into overdrive since the baby arrived in May.

Fatuma, Khadiga and her girls, Zahra, Mama Moumina, Sharifo, and Sahara were all teaching themselves. They worked out the measurements and the counting, the symmetry and color combinations. Double strands, pendants, patterns, and convertible pieces--when and how had they learned these things?

When I learned to make jewelry, I didn't have a teacher to show me what to do. I learned from books, mostly (Margot Potter's Impatient Beader was a lifesaver!), as well as from magazines and online resources. It took me a few months to find my groove and to try to find my own design style. It didn't come all that naturally, but eventually, I got there.

Anna and I recently discussed how when we went back and looked at our own first pieces of jewelry, we realized what mediocre attempts ours had been. When we started working with the refugee women, though, we both found new enthusiasm and just as the women were trying, we also paid more attention to our creativity and attempted new things. Shortly after that conversation, I noticed that Jaime had also started creating very pretty pieces for herself. The three of us all had a few girly-girl moments along the way where we complimented each other on our lovely jewelry and accepted lavish compliments from each other.

As I pulled more necklaces out of the bag, I wondered if the women felt this same sense of happiness about their creativity. Were they enjoying the journey from making saleable items to making beautiful, original crafts? Did they wake up in the morning thinking of a color combination or a particular bead they wanted to use in a necklace? Do they share our excitement for the creative process? These kinds of questions are difficult for us to ask, and even if we had an interpreter, this kind of conceptual language doesn't translate well.

I wanted to think that the beautiful, colorful, and detailed work I was holding in my hands had been created with joy and not just with a sense of doing business. It seems to me that it's not possible to make something so wonderful without having put heart and soul and passion into it.

Some of the women in our program have survived things that are far too horrific to share with you. It is a fact that many of them suffered terribly in the refugee camps, and most experienced profound depression after they arrived in the U.S. In addition, all of them, every single one, lost someone very dear in one armed conflict or another. Now I marvel at their resiliency, their survivor mentality, their willingness to start over, keep going and to try something that is new--and possibly a little frivolous--along the way.

There is so much more than beauty in art. The things we create carry some of our personal history, our emotions, our ingrained experiences, and our personality in every piece. When you look at the bounty of beaded jewelry created by the women of A Little Something, you might be tempted to see only a barrage of color and sparkle. But if you sit beside me on the floor and hold these pieces, these small wonders, you will soon understand that you are bearing witness to a handful of miracles.