By Kristen Seeber
Women’s Fund of Smith County
I’ve always loved a good story. As a little girl, I carefully selected the books I wanted my mom to read to us before bedtime each night. Because I listened to my favorite fairytales over and over again, I had them memorized word-for-word. Even before I learned to read, I would “read” those same books to my dolls – knowing exactly when to turn the page and how to inflect certain words to bring characters to life. Storytime with our sons, when they were young, is just as fond a memory.
A well-crafted story pulls you in. When the writing is beautiful and absorbing, you can’t wait to turn the page while, at the same time, wishing the book would never end. Those can’t-put-it-down novels stay with you for a long, long time. Protagonists become friends and plots make us ponder, as we identify with the underlying theme on some level or another.
Real-life stories are especially compelling, and each of us has our own to tell. At different times in our lives, our personal story may take a new twist or turn. Relationships, experiences, joys and trials all become a part of who we are, who we become. From one chapter to the next, our story unfolds.
At our recent Power of the Purse Luncheon, Women’s Fund members and guests heard a remarkable story from our keynote speaker, Brittany Merrill Underwood. Her philanthropic journey began with a ten-minute meeting that changed her life. As a college student, Underwood spent a summer teaching in Uganda and was moved to compassion after encountering a Ugandan woman who cared for twenty-four street children in her home. This compassion escalated to action. After graduating, Underwood launched an organization to train and employ women in northern and eastern Uganda, a region affected by civil war and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to make jewelry – hand-rolling paper beads.
These women had a hope and vision for their families yet did not have the income or the confidence to embrace their calling. Through Underwood’s new sustainable model, which guaranteed a monthly income, women and their children were uplifted. The women named the project Akola – “she works” – in their local dialect, and their lives have been transformed.
What started as a venture for Ugandan women eventually grew to a program in Dallas. Over 100 women from marginalized backgrounds are now employed to create necklaces and accessories in their hometown. Many of these women, who were trapped in urban poverty, are rewriting their story because of a dependable and dignifying work opportunity.
Akola’s unique jewelry pieces are sold in Neiman Marcus, on the Home Shopping Network, and in 250 additional retailers. As a nonprofit, Akola reinvests 100 percent of revenues from sales to support employment, training, holistic programs and the construction of training centers and water wells in impoverished communities around the world. Since its beginning in 2006, this first full impact brand has empowered 500 women – lifting their families from poverty.
At Akola, they believe design can define a life. For every necklace purchased, a new story begins for a woman and her family. In their communities, these women are agents of transformation. They are breaking boundaries, becoming bolder, more beautiful.
Stories like Brittany Underwood’s are inspiring and give rise to the Women’s Fund mission of leveraging women’s philanthropy as a catalyst for positive change. Our grants to local nonprofits are impacting the lives of women and children in our community in countless ways.
Most fairytales of my childhood had perfect endings. Yet not all stories are fairytales. Many are combined tales of suspense, romance, mystery and even tragedy. It’s between the beginning and the end, though, where most of the drama transpires, and we wonder anxiously how it will all turn out. If our giving helps rewrite the story of someone else – easing burdens, offering hope and second chances – then maybe that life can have its own happily ever after.
Kristen Seeber serves as president of the Women’s Fund of Smith County, a collective giving circle which awards annual grants to nonprofit programs that bring positive change to the lives of women and children in our community. Visit www.womensfundsc.org to learn more about mission, outreach and membership opportunities.