Kirsten Monson has lived in many places, both in the US and abroad, and currently lives in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she loves being a stay-at-home mom for five wonderful children, ages 2-13. Kirsten holds a B.S. in statistics, and has run her own preschool in Boston, Minneapolis, and Switzerland. Her many travels around the globe have prompted her to start Elevita, a non-profit that helps artisans in developing countries find a broader market for their products; 100% of the proceeds go to humanitarian projects, especially education.
When I was 10 years old, my grandmother (Mutti) traveled to India. She returned with a trove of treasures, trinkets, images, and stories that made an indelible impression on me. Perhaps most memorable were the stories of intense poverty: Mutti related how she was often thronged by dozens of barefoot children begging for some small handout, and indeed, she tried to distribute everything she had in her purse: pens, pencils, coins, candies, gum–everything, that is, except her last pen. Retaining the pen was something I couldn't quite understand, though of course Mutti explained that she needed it to write. With my simplistic 10-year-old vision, I determined that someday, I would like to travel to India myself and pass out pens to children. Though I never forgot it, this particular dream lay dormant for many years.
Recently, my husband, Keyne (pronounced Keen), began doing some medical device work in developing markets, including India. Hearing Keyne relay stories of the tragic poverty he witnessed brought back memories of Mutti's stories, and I felt a STRONG desire to go and see for myself. The optimist in me believed that if I could actually go and see, I would be able to find something to do to help. I finally made it to India in May, 2010.
The number of people in India living on less than $2 of income a day is greater than the entire population of the USA. There are many examples of scenes from our trip that tugged at our emotions: We witnessed a father tucking in his weary children on a broken cardboard box under a busy overpass in downtown Mumbai; we saw village children wearing nothing but rags while in search of that day’s meal; and we saw destitute families living under canopies with no hope for a better future. Yet overlaid with these scenes we discovered an amazing country full of kind, beautiful people, who made vibrant, impressive handicrafts. Unfortunately, however, there seemed to be very few people interested in buying these goods.
The entire trip I had one burning question in my mind: What is it these people need to pull themselves out of poverty and embark on the road to prosperity? I knew the answer to this question would be life-changing. On the plane on the way home, the thought occurred to me: the regions I visited were definitely not lacking in marketable skills; people simply needed more opportunity to share their wonderful talents.
So Elevita was born. As soon as I returned home, I began to recontact my favorite artisans and see if I could buy goods from them in quantity. I knew enough about economics to realize that the ripple effects on their villages would be tremendous. I also began to search out artisans in other developing countries who could use some help gaining access to markets. By the end of the summer, we had assembled our first group of artisans, organized funding, achieved non-profit status, and built a website: Elevita.com.
The name “Elevita” implies “Lifting Life.” Hence our slogan, “Improving Lives Worldwide.” Not only does this project benefit the artisans we try to support, but simultaneously 100% of the profits from our sales are going toward humanitarian projects, especially in education. Right now we are raising money to build a hostel so that girls from rural Indian villages can have the opportunity to attend Secondary School. And of course those who purchase from Elevita also benefit! They acquire beautiful handmade goods from all over the world, and they become aware of a simple way to help others fulfill their own dreams.
When I asked Kirsten about her favorite handicrafts, she mentioned two:
One of my favorites is the Ladybug bracelet. This is a bracelet made by village women in the Himilayas who carefully collect tree resin, and then shape it, dry it, and polish it into beads. These women live difficult, somewhat primitive lives, but after they finish their household chores, they take time for this ethnic craft so they can supplement the meager income of their families. I love this item because it embodies the concept that ambitious people can use the few resources available to them to make something of value to others.
I also love the Swaroopi bag. Swaroopi is a woman who had the good fortune of being taken in by the Nila Moti Foundation–another organization that helps women from all castes fulfill their dreams. Here in this encouraging environment, Swaroopi designed this incredible luxury silk bag.
What are your favorite items on Elevita?
Is there an experience of one of your parents or grandparents that has been formative for you? Helping to shape your dreams?
Do you know of something that someone does well, but few know of their skill? Just as Kirsten is helping others to know about the beautiful work of artisans in India, Ghana, Haiti, etc, is there anyone's work that you can champion? Whether artisans in India, a fellow dreamer, a child?