The beautiful Central American country of Guatemala is a land of contradictions. Known for its soaring mountains, sand dunes, rivers, lakes and wetlands, its natural beauty and colorful cities are well recognized — but perhaps not as much as its societal struggles.
Like the U.S., Guatemala shares a border with Mexico. But in many ways, that’s where the similarities between the two nations end.
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Guatemalans could easily be considered artisanal maker-class originals. Because long before hipsters in North American cities began rediscovering the virtues of quality, handmade goods, Guatemalan women with extraordinary skills in weaving, beading and sewing were plying their trade in villages and towns across their country. But having the ability to reach markets and consumers in the U.S. can open doors very few of these women ever would have thought possible.
Now, Friendship Bridge, a local nonprofit that has been working with and empowering Guatemalan women for decades, has created an in-office showroom in its Lakewood office to sell authentic products, handmade by Guatemalan artisans from rural areas of the country.
According to Lydia Shauf, who handles Content and Media Relations for the organization, the Handmade by Friendship Bridge showroom includes a collection of handmade purses, scarves, home decor baskets, ornaments and other gift items in rich colors and textiles.
According to world bank.org, nearly half of Guatemala's population lived on less than the U.S. equivalent of $5.50 per day as recently as April 2020.
For most of its recent history, Guatemala has had a disturbing record of women being treated unfairly and unequally, according to humanitarian organization Madre.org.
But for more than 20 years, Friendship Bridge has been working with Guatemalan women, giving them a chance to grow, prosper and thrive, while charting their own course as artisans and entrepreneurs.
Friendship Bridge Chief Development Officer Nicole Eubanks said one of the most special things about the Handmade by Friendship Bridge program is exactly what the name implies — that the goods are all handmade.
The 30 plus artisans participating in the program are part of a "Microcredit Plus" program of Friendship Bridge. This program gives the women access to small loans that are used as start-up funds for their businesses. The program also provides the women with business training and other support mechanisms, to allow their small businesses to take root.
The individual artisans are then able to set their own wholesale prices for the goods they make and once the goods are sold through various retail channels of Handmade by Friendship Bridge. Eubanks said any profits are then used to sustain the program.
Maya Colop-Morales manages Handmade by Friendship Bridge. In a ZOOM interview from her home office in Guatemala, she beamed as she described her work with the current Artisans in the program and the beautiful goods they make. She said they're more than just clients to her — they've become true friends. On any given day she may spend hours driving into rural areas of the country to spend time working with and mentoring them.
With a history as an accomplished designer and entrepreneur herself, Colop-Morales understands the dedication and skill it takes for these women from rural areas — many, with little formal education — to overcome the myriad challenges they face to run a profitable small business. It's exactly why she has so much admiration for them.
"Women in Guatemala tend to put the money they earn toward their families and education, which helps to support the entire community," she said.
The program also teaches the women how to engage with technology — scheduling WhatsApp meetings and showing design samples over a video chat. The mentoring and business classes also help grow their confidence with things that traditionally have been done by men, like public speaking or brokering a deal.
Asked what the most important thing the program gives Guatemalan women, Colop-Morales' response was instantaneous.
"It gives them empowerment," she said.
While the Handmade by Friendship Bridge program has been operating since 2015, the organization has also offered similar small loans and business training to low-income Guatemalan women since 1998. These micro-loans can help Guatemalan women, refered to as clients, start a business venture of their own for as little as $250 U.S. Since 2003, Eubanks said the organization has served more than 32,000 of these micro-loan clients.
Support Friendship Bridge’s women entrepreneurs by clicking “Shop” at www.friendshipbridge.org or by making an appointment to shop in person at the in-office showroom, 405 Urban St., #140 in Lakewood, from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Thursday. Call 303-674-0717 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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