updated 04/09/2014 AT 9:00 AM ET
•originally published 04/10/2014 AT 2:30 PM ET
In 2011, Teddy Namuyiga was desperate.
She was living with her three daughters outside Kampala, Uganda, on less than $1 a day. Her husband had left her after their third child was born deaf, and Teddy was forced to ask neighbors if she could wash their clothes or fetch water for money.
“All the money I got, I used to feed my children,” she says. “Life was very hard.”
One day in the courtyard near her home, Teddy met a worker with BeadforLife, a group started by three Colorado women to teach Ugandan women the art of paper bead making and – more importantly – how to manage money and become entrepreneurs on their own.
“I saw I could start a new life,” she says.
She joined the 18-month training program, earning money from the beads she crafted from recycled paper, and she learned how to start her own business. By the time she graduated, Teddy had invested her earnings in a 5,000-liter water tank and began selling water to neighbors.
Today, she also owns 500 laying chickens, 16 pigs and three milking cows. With a monthly income nearing $400, she is able to send her girls (ages 16, 14 and 10) to good schools.
“Now I’m sure I can support my family,” says Teddy, 36. “BeadforLife saved my life.”
Namuyiga is one of 2,026 Ugandan women whose lives have been touched by BeadforLife, an idea that began with a chance meeting in a Ugandan slum ten years ago.
In April 2004, Devin Hibbard and a family friend, Ginny Jordan, traveled to Uganda to visit Hibbard’s mother Torkin Wakefield, a Peace Corps veteran who was volunteering with AIDS patients while her physician husband was training health providers in HIV care. The three women were walking together through the slums on the outskirts of Kampala when they came upon a woman called Millie who was rolling slips of scrap paper into beads.
Taken by her story – she survived on 70 cents a day by breaking boulders into pebbles with a mallet – and her handiwork, they bought a few of her bead necklaces and went on their way.
The women went back to find Millie and learned that many of her neighbors also knew how to make the beads. They bought 200 more necklaces from the women, taking them home to Boulder, Colo., and threw their first ‘bead party,’ showing slides, telling stories about the women they met, and selling jewelry to friends.
“People liked the jewelry, but what they were inspired by were these hardworking women who were doing everything they could to change their lives,” Hibbard says. “They rolled their hopes and dreams into every bead.”
With the profits from the bead sales, they made the organization official and began creating a training program to help Ugandan women not only sell their handicraft, but become business women through mentoring and classes on marketing and personal finance.
“What’s offered to these women, who only months before had nothing, is the opportunity to empower themselves,” says Brooklyn-based singer Maya Azucena, an artist ambassador for the group who visited the program in Uganda last year.
“It’s someone saying, ‘This is how you can take the power you have and use it.’ It’s not just dumping money on them and leaving – it’s sustainable.”
And it seems to be working. According to BeadforLife surveys, two years after graduating the program, more than 50 percent of the women have lifted themselves out of poverty and 81 percent still have successful businesses, including farming, running restaurants, making sweaters, crafting wooden toys and running grocery stores.
“People can transform their lives with just a little help,” says Wakefield, 69.
All the programs BeadforLife runs, which include a ‘street business school’ that teaches business skills to locals not in the beading classes and a partnership with Habitat for Humanity that allows women in the program to buy their own homes, are almost entirely funded by the organization’s bead parties, where beaded bracelets, earrings and necklaces sell from $5 to $50.
“Each time Emma sells a bracelet she really feels like she’s doing something for these women,” Cramer says of her daughter, who has raised more than $6,000 for BeadforLife through bead parties. “We feel like we’ve been blessed.”
For Wakefield, the success of these woman has been humbling.
“On the one hand, the beads are quite simple,” she says. “But when you think about trash becoming beauty, and that becoming income and hope and the ability to change lives, it’s like a miracle. Each bead is a tiny miracle.”
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