How We Got Started
In 2007 a group of residents and aid workers brought Club Vida Joven to Granada to reach the most at-risk youth on the streets. With no funding, we were challenged to find the financial resources to keep the club going. The Jicaro Project was one answer.
Resources can be scarce, particularly when you have little money. So our challenge was to work with what we have in order to develop a source of income. And what we have here is abundant labor. Wages are low and everyone is looking for work, including the youth of Vida Joven. In Granada we also have tourists, and that means shoppers. What we needed was a product that was labor intensive and used available free materials.
At El Puente, our base in the Santa Rosa barrio, are several Jicaro trees whose gourd-like fruit grow year-round. One of the first youth to become involved in Vida Joven brought a jicaro one day that he’d made into a rough bowl. With a little experimentation (several months, actually) we designed a candle with seed feet and a lid and began selling them at a couple of shops in town. A visiting volunteer from the states came up with a variation for a bangle bracelet, which sold even better. Soon, we added earrings and a few more stores, and began selling them to visitors at the base.
Our production team are youth from Vida Joven, who are happy to have something to do and even more happy to be paid for it. Their earnings help to pay for school or Vida Joven camps, and through our profits we have been able to keep Vida Joven funded and growing. While working, we sometimes teach about work ethics or financial management, responsibility or integrity. Watching the boys mature and settle into young men has been a source of quiet wonder for me.
A Second Product Line
But we weren’t to stop there. A medical team in the summer of 2009 introduced the method of making beads out of magazines. We could see this was going to be a tricky product to develop, and it took a full six months to come up with a style and process that would sell. In making this second line, we determined to open the program to barrio women struggling to make ends meet, most with young children and no working husband. Most of these women came to us through men we’d sponsored in rehab programs. So, we designed our production process to allow the women to take much of the work home where they could work while watching their children. During the time we’re together preparing work for home, we’ve developed a support community, and our women feel less alone facing the hard life in the barrio.
In the summer of 2010, another volunteer from the ‘States suggested we start a t-shirt business. After a little brain storming with our interns and a little tweaking, we decided to develop a line of batik table linens instead, something no one else was doing. As our experience totaled a whopping 2 batiks from a 1973 high school art class, it’s taken some time to get a product that can be adapted to our labor force, but things look promising. The local shops are enthusiastic about what they’ve seen. Like the first two products, they will be labor intensive, though there is a bit more cost to materials acquisition. And, like the first two product lines, they can easily be carried back to the ‘States for sale in boutiques.
Not a one of us had experience starting a business or developing a product or training a work force. The concept has grown step by step, but it seems to be working. People like to know that their hand labor is admired, and other people like to know that an individual with a name made the object they are buying. It’s good to know that proceeds will go to develop helpful programs in a desperate place so that people can change their lives for the better. Vida Joven is thriving, young people are leaving gangs, drugs and violence, young mothers are feeding their families and everyone is getting a sense of purpose and possibility. It’s been hard but it’s been fun, and we couldn’t have done it without the help of visitors and interns, people who share our belief that life can be better in the barrios.