Alumni Profile • Marilyn DeGraaf Bratt ex'53, Vonnie DeVries Poortenga '65 and Elaine Bult Van Kley '58
Sold on fair trade

They opened "on a wing and a prayer." No business plan. No retail experience. A lot of naïveté. And passion for the project.

In the fall of 1986, three women from Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.-Marilyn DeGraaf Bratt ex'53, Vonnie DeVries Poortenga '65 and Elaine Bult Van Kley '58-led the effort of the church's social justice committee to open Global Gifts (formerly Christian Crafts Ministry), a retail outlet for fairly traded handcrafts made by economically poor people around the world. In November the project celebrates its 20th anniversary.

All three women are still fervently involved in its operations. From the project's inception they have each given thousands of hours-and not a little money-to see it succeed.

"We're sold on the idea," Poortenga said. "If we weren't, we could walk away. But we want to see this thing go!"

This idea they're sold on was modeled for them by a store in Kalamazoo where the trio saw a nonprofit that bought and sold handcrafts from around the world with the express purpose of supplying the craftsmen and craftswomen with a fair and living wage. "That store was our mentor," Van Kley said.

Van Kley, Poortenga and Bratt accompanied volunteers from that store on a buying trip to the Ten Thousand Villages headquarters and warehouse in Akron, Pa. With $5,000 in donations and another $5,000 in loans, they filled a rented storefront with handmade crafts just in time for 1986 Christmas gift buying. "We notified the churches and people came out and bought," Bratt said. "We did unusually well. Our things were really unique then."

Twenty years later, the Kalamazoo store has closed. In Grand Rapids , Global Gifts expanded, a year ago, into a more visible storefront. Its low overhead (rent and salary for a very part-time manager) accounts for its survival, as well as a cadre of 33 faithful volunteers from 25 churches.

Last year's move to a more visible space was a move to meet the biggest current challenge to Global Gifts' survival: the proliferation of for-profit retail stores that carry similar items, stores such as Pier 1 and Cost Plus World Market.

Each handcrafted item in Global Gifts comes by way of organizations-such as the Mennonite-sponsored Ten Thousand Villages-that work with artisans in the Third World and know how much they need to support themselves by their craft. Artisans are given seed money and then paid in full as soon as they deliver their wares.

And so it is that sales from Global Gifts in 2005-one of its slower sales years-offered 65 crafter families dignity: They earned enough by the skillful work of their hands to purchase adequate food, shelter, health care and education. They revived native art forms that were dying. They extended opportunities to their neighbors by forming artisans' cooperatives.

Bratt, Van Kley and Poortenga believe that if people, especially Christians, knew that the purchase of tablecloths and handbags, baskets, bowls, bookends and earrings could do all that, they'd be sold on the idea, too.

Global Gifts is at 2055 28th St. SE in Grand Rapids, (616) 245-2225.

For hours and product information, visit www.vertimark.com/globalgifts.