Ash and Ember began as a simple, do-good senior project for four Cal Poly students. Now, the project is sparking empowerment and hope in the Haitian community of Montrouis.
A group of men and women in Montrouis spend hours every day hand-crafting beads, many from recycled paper. Ash and Ember purchases the beads, uses them to design jewelry, sells the jewelry and gives its profits back to the bead makers in Montrouis. Approximately two-thirds of the money goes toward rent, food and educational expenses for the Haitians. The rest goes to jewelry-making supplies.
Psychology senior Lauren Swart said she had no idea what was in store when she adopted Ash and Ember as her senior project. She has since traveled to Haiti, met the bead makers and fallen in love with Ash and Ember’s mission.
“It makes such a difference when you see a piece of jewelry and the name of the woman who made all these beads, and you know her face and you know her name,” Swart said. “She’s not just ‘someone.’”
Ash and Ember aims to provide its bead makers with a stable, sustainable income, she said. This inspired the program’s name. “Ash” represents the darkness, brokenness and severe poverty in Haiti, while “ember” symbolizes hope glowing within the ash.
“The little bit of hope that they still have in actually having a sustainable income with this program could start a wildfire,” Swart said.
The idea for Ash and Ember began with the program’s adviser, Breanne Minefee, Swart said. Minefee worked with Christian missionary organization Impact Ministries, which sent annual missions to Haiti. Impact’s missionaries tried out several different methods for local Haitians to make sustainable incomes. When they stumbled upon the idea of bead making, it showed potential, but required a market in the United States to be effective.
Minefee turned to Cal Poly students, hoping some might take interest in creating a market for the bead-making program. Swart, along with psychology senior Devrie Donalson, sociology senior Nicole White and business administration senior Caroline Dozier accepted the challenge. Thus, Ash and Ember was born — but the project was not always smooth sailing.
Ash and Ember had a rocky start because the Haitians were not used to working for financial relief.
“The women weren’t excited about it because they have never had to work hard for a living,” Minefee said. “They’ve just lived and someone has paid for their rent and made it work for them.”
Every year, thousands of organizations travel to Haiti to give relief, Minefee said. Most, however, resort to giving financial handouts.
“That’s what white people do in Haiti,” she said. “It’s a lot of God providing for them in those ways, but it’s also not empowering them to do it themselves.”
Impact’s bead making program sought out community members who were willing to work in return for money to cover rent, food and education, Minefee said.
“For half of them, it’s boring, or they think it’s too much work, or they’re not getting paid what they think they should,” Minefee said. “But half of them see it as an opportunity to improve their lives, and to make a difference in their families and save money and start their own businesses.”
Ash and Ember has generated approximately $3,000 since September, all of which went toward either jewelry-making supplies or the bead makers.
In addition to giving financially to local Haitians, Ash and Ember also provides empowerment. Many female bead makers are unmarried with children, and Ash and Ember allows them to independently provide for their families — a rare opportunity in their gender-segregated society.
“For husbands to be able to provide is a big deal,” Minefee said. “But for these women to be able to provide on their own without needing a husband, to do that for them is a really big deal.”
Right now, Ash and Ember’s biggest obstacle is its inability to build its inventory.
Each piece of jewelry Ash and Ember places on Facebook or its website sells within one or two days. Buyers are usually people who have visited Haiti or who are involved with Impact and sympathize with Ash and Ember’s mission.
The program’s only full-time jewelry makers are the four Cal Poly seniors and Minefee. They try to hold monthly volunteer days, providing snacks and drinks in exchange for people to help make jewelry.
“I think it can be successful, but we need to get someone on the ground in Haiti,” Minefee said. “Someone from here who has knowledge and experience and a desire to walk with those people and help them stay motivated, to figure out new and inventive ways for them to make a life for themselves.”
Swart and Donalson spent a month in Haiti over the summer working with the bead makers. Despite their cultural differences and language barriers, meeting the Haitians who worked with Ash and Ember changed Swart’s perspective on the program, she said.
“It was a really cool thing, not even being able to directly communicate with these people, but they knew the heart we had for this program and we knew their gratefulness and how thankful they were,” Swart said. “Those are the things you can feel without words — the unspokens.”
Swart was able to bring skills she learned from her psychology courses into Ash and Ember as well as her experience in Haiti.
“I learned a lot about cross-cultural needs,” Swart said. “With psychology, it’s all about people and getting to know them and their thoughts and the reasons behind why they do the things they do. I was prepared as I could be to go into a third-world country and be multi-culturally competent.”
Swart also learned how to work with a team in which each member has a different educational background.
“Each individual person’s gifts can bring something new to a really big project,” she said. “It’s a huge dream, and just to see where it’s come so far, I can’t believe that these things are happening already. I know it wouldn’t have happened without the creativity, dedication and different visions of all the girls.”
Swart now hopes to make Ash and Ember her livelihood after graduation.
“It would be really rewarding to see this turn into a business that flourishes,and that I would be able to put so much time and effort into, because I don’t have to put it somewhere else, trying to make a living,” she said.
However, Swart often finds herself distracted by school and concerns for her future.
“It definitely goes in waves,” she said. “It’s not constant fire and passion for this. It’s so easy to get distracted, especially in a college bubble. You’re so selfish and self-centered and worried about your future.”
When Swart becomes sidetracked by school or gets exhausted or frustrated by the program’s demands, she simply looks at photos from her trip to Haiti. Seeing the bead makers’ faces renews her drive for Ash and Ember.
“I know those faces,” Swart said. “I held their hands. I smiled at them. I cried with them. I know these people personally.”
Swart no longer feels only an academic obligation to her senior project, but a moral one as well.
“They have a need, and I have the opportunity to help,” she said. “How dare I not take advantage of that? How dare I not offer everything that I have for this program?”
White also tackled Ash and Ember for her senior project. She wants to work with nonprofit organizations in her future, and Ash and Ember has given her invaluable tools for achieving that goal, she said.
“This has taught me more than anything else could have,” White said. “Through things we’ve done well, things we’ve failed at, unexpected challenges or really awesome opportunities — I’ve just learned an incredible amount.”
White hopes to see Ash and Ember flourish in the future.
“I just really want this to be something that can grow and really help create something sustainable for the people we’re working with,” she said. “We have a long way to go and a lot of things to work on and do, but I really see potential in it, so I hope that it continues after this year.”