In late 2016, I had a personal, yet removed, experience with human trafficking. That triggered a huge change in my lifestyle in terms of the organizations that I supported and how I spent my money. I wanted to be sure that my money would never ever be used again to fund things like human trafficking! It all started by stumbling upon the now-closed My Sister in Uptown in Minneapolis. That shop led me to Spoils of Wear and Fair Anita in St. Paul, and then Ten Thousand Villages, and my rediscovery of fair trade.
I already knew a little bit about this idea of fair trade from the sale at my mom's church and from my friends at The Purple Tree in Hudson, Wisconsin, near where I used to live prior to my divorce. But I really did not fully understand things until I stumbled into Ten Thousand Villages that spring and met Jann, Mary Jo, and Maddie and they easily swayed me into becoming a volunteer at the shop. Needless to say, my world was never the same!
Volunteering gave me something to do with my time as I transitioned out of full-time intensive outpatient therapy and a healthy distraction from my divorce proceedings in early 2017. It became something new for me to learn and experience. I volunteered regularly every Thursday night, and filled in frequently when they needed help. I discovered a group of people with similar values as me and no ulterior motives. They brought me into their fold and gave me reasons to laugh and smile again for the first time in months.
My time as a volunteer, then staff member, taught me so much! I started gaining a whole new understanding for the global community and the human condition, far beyond myself. I started learning about our individual impact on the planet and how our behaviors and choices have a direct connection to the world and people around us. I suddenly saw myself in a whole different way. I was no longer focused on my own pain and how life was unfair to me. I saw ways that I could change my behavior to improve the lives of people around the world and save the planet. The idea that by simply changing my buying choices, I could change lives of people living in countries I had never even heard of, was massive. This was something that I could manage. I could choose to support businesses and organizations that cared about the people making the products they sold and how the factories treat their employees both in the United States and abroad. I could choose to support businesses that wanted to be stewards of the environment and take drastic measures to save it. I could choose to support the local shops and businesses that only are trying to put food on the table and send their kids to hockey and college.
By understanding the impact of my choices, I saw myself as part of a global community of friends, partners, and mentors. I let go of the idea that my world revolved solely around myself and my own pain. I was able to start feeling the pain of women struggling to feed their families one meal a day in countries like Peru and Cambodia. I could feel the pain of female garment workers in Bangladesh, being forced to work endless days, having to ask permission from a man to use the restroom, all so some person in the West could have their $4 white t-shirt. I could also see the joy on the women's faces because they could come and go from their workshops as they pleased and the woman who employs them visits and throws dance parties at the end of the workday. I could see the pride in the eyes of men in Haiti when they hold up their metal work that allows them to care for and feed their families because someone cared enough to pay them fairly and treat them as an equal. I could video chat with the women working in the coffee roastery in Nicaragua, see the animation on their faces, and tell them how much I love their coffee as they laugh and smile.
Because of this, my sense of empathy expanded exponentially, and just may have saved my life.