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Social Impact | November 15, 2012

Crafting hope

Work

Austin-based jewelry business helps families raise funds for adoption while providing fair-trade jobs for international artisans

Jessica Honegger (Courtesy photo)

Jessica Honegger grew up near San Antonio, Texas, surrounded by affluence. She remembers her childhood neighborhood as one where money wasn't an issue and all the teenagers got cars for their 16th birthday.

She got her first exposure to real world poverty during an eighth-grade service trip with her church to inner-city Washington D.C. She recalled sitting in a transition home for homeless women staring out the window onto poverty-ridden streets while in the background, one of the residents crooned Amazing Grace.

"That's when I knew I would spend my life fighting injustice," she said.

But it took Honegger more than 10 years and several international trips to find her specific task. She thought she would labor overseas in dusty classrooms or poorly supplied medical centers. She never expected that her eventual answer would include designing jewelry, hosting trunk shows, and helping people start their own businesses.

As a teenager, she chose to follow Jesus, wrestling with what seemed like a set of rules. That changed during a high school mission trip to Kenya when she held an orphan for the first time. During that trip, she realized two things: Following Jesus was a relationship, not rules, and that loving Jesus also meant caring for the poor. "A deeper understanding of who Jesus is came hand in hand with my discovery of the poor and my discovery of my place in that."

Eager to find her calling, 15-year-old Honegger returned home a self-described, poster-touting hippie who spent her free time raising money for Kenyan children to go to school and volunteering at homeless shelters. As a young adult, she embraced traditional models of charity that focused on giving money away. She saw poverty as a lack of resources, not a mentality.

After college, she became restless, eager to discover her place. She traveled as a nurse's aid, but that didn't click. Neither did social work or politics. She got married, had children and kept searching. She thought teaching would be how she served the poor, so she got her master's in Education. Honegger and her husband settled in Austin, Texas and took up normal jobs. He worked in real estate while she worked at a local boutique. They continued to travel, intentionally living and serving among the poor to keep perspective.

During a visit to Uganda, they visited an orphanage and returned to the states compelled to adopt. They started the process, eventually settling on adopting a little boy from Rwanda. But when their business started to wobble and they had to dip into their savings, Honegger realized she would have to get creative to pull together $20,000 to bring her new son home.

Friends who worked with Ugandan artisans told her about a stateside storage unit full of goods she could sell to raise money. Honegger drove over, loaded up the car with necklaces and bracelets, and started hosting trunk shows at her home. Friends came, listened to the stories and tried on jewelry. Honegger's doubts started to fade when she made $4,000 at her first show. One party at a time, raised enough to cover the entire cost of the adoption.

Word of Honegger's idea spread, and she started getting phone calls from other women wanting to replicate her idea to raise money for their own adoptions. She was flattered, but also alarmed by the attention. Although she had registered her operations as a business--calling it Noonday based on Isaiah 58:10--Honegger hadn't planned to keep it going or have it grow. Doubts swirled in her mind: How would ever get all the work done? What if she couldn't pay her employees?

With the help and support of friends, she started transitioning Noonday from a quick-fix fundraising plan to a sustainable business opportunity for both American women and international artisans. Even though she had witnessed the positive effects of creating work opportunities for the poor, she never thought it was something she could do.

"I [had] spent so much time scorning how I grew up and glorifying the poor," she said. "Now I get to use fashion as a vehicle to teach women and share stories and connect women."

For Honegger, running Noonday has its share of challenges, among them extreme multitasking and managing delicate relationships with her international suppliers. Quality control and meeting volume demands are two of the most pressing needs and it doesn't always work out neatly. For example, she just received a batch of bracelets from artisans in Ethiopia, but they're hardly big enough to fit the wrist of a five year old. She will send them back, and the American customers will have to wait for their orders.

Enterprise-based approaches to poverty relief have been at the heart of a discussion on international aid for some time. The concept achieved extra attention last month when U2 lead singer Bono admitted his own hasty dismissal of capitalism-based relief efforts. He went on to say he had learned the importance of commerce, jobs, and investment, and that aid was "just a bridge."

Noonday now has more than 100 ambassadors -- customers who join the company as affiliates, using the platform to start their own businesses while spreading the word about Fair Trade, international adoption, and the stories of artisans escaping poverty through work.

Some, like Honegger are raising money for adoptions. Others, including Liberty University senior Kelly Crofton get involved to help share the word about Fair Trade poverty relief: "I had heard of Fair Trade coffee, but I didn't know what [Fair Trade] meant." She realized working with Noonday enabled her to have a side business and explain how Fair Trade businesses could help in the battle against slave labor. She admits it's an uphill task--most people in her social circle have never heard about Noonday or the Fair Trade concept.

Photographer Laura Pensack, 23, signed up as an ambassador as a way to make extra money. She's also hoping to help spread the idea of conscious consumption and entrepreneurial strategies to combating global poverty.

"[Before], I viewed the poor as though they weren't equal to me," Pensack admitted. "I didn't understand until I started working with Noonday [that] everybody is equal...they want work and have dreams...they don't need handouts, they need a marketplace for their work."

The business is new, but it already has provided rewarding results. Honegger told me about two Ugandan artisans, a husband and wife team named Jalia and Daniel, who create jewelry for Noonday and also provide employment to locals, offering them both a sustainable escape from extreme poverty and a chance to hear the Gospel.

"I've struggled for years to see what I can do to help the poor," Honegger said. "People are no longer living in destitute poverty because they have work that brings them dignity...to me that is definitely success."