Live and Learn
It is with sad, yet peaceful hearts that we announce that at the end of 2017, No.41 will wrap up and close our school feeding program. It has been our honor to partner with you as we have partnered with the school and the parents in providing school lunches (more than ONE MILLION) over the last 5 years; however, in those 5 years much has changed and so we must be willing to change, as well. Even when it hurts.
Six years ago, when No.41 started it was about job creation. It was about skills training and employment that would hopefully (at the time) give young adults, who were being forced out of the only home they had ever known, a choice. Sewing products did exactly that for 16 precious girls, yet as we got to know these vulnerable ladies and their hearts, we were prayerful that their efforts could do even more. That they would see their worth in their work, not only in their own lives, but in their community.
We built in profits to the sale of their products, so that after they were paid, the additional money would go to provide meals to local secondary schools in the community who, along with parents, could not afford to feed students lunch. And the No.41 Signature Bag was born. At just $75, this bag provided a living wage to the woman who made it AND fed one student, one meal, everyday, for one year. It was a wildly successful, and equally naïve, concept. In the beginning, we had so many supporters jumping on board to snag a bag (or a few) that, for a small dent, would employ a woman and feed a student for an entire year. Y'all were lining up to purchase and students were lining up (even faster) to eat!
The school leaders didn’t believe it. Until they saw it. They were beyond excited to have our support. In the first year, enrollment soared to the point that a new campus had to be built. From my American perspective, it was rewarding to be offering something that was clearly so needed and this felt like such a simple solution to such a large problem. We were serving $0.25 lunches and literally changing generations by offering students a quality education. The honeymoon phase was fairly short-lived.
It took that first year for us to realize that parents weren’t helpless to provide for their children. They could, and should, contribute to the positive changes happening for the students and within the community. They needed to know that they have a part in this movement, an integral part. By year two, we worked out a plan to start the parents contributing just less than 10% towards the feeding of their students and slowly, over time, that percentage would increase to a 50/50 partnership. The payment schedule was something they were involved in and excited about.
Looking back, it wasn’t sustainable to think that forever and ever we would sell Signature Bags to feed students. Especially as we hoped to grow the program. Thankfully, as the skills of the ladies grew, so did their product line and each product sold provided a certain number of meals to the feeding program. By this time, most of our first crop of young women had gotten up on their own two feet and had moved on to start university. The core of our ladies was now made up of more mature and established women, wives and mothers who, by working at No.41, were finding themselves as the breadwinners in their families. These women became heroes in the community, known for feeding the students of Kanama Catholique School. Yet even still, needs were so great that some of the very women working to provide these meals were clamoring to get their children into this school so that they, too, could eat.
By year 3, the Rwandan government made a sweeping announcement that all public schools would be required to feed their students a school lunch. Again, from my American perspective, this was not realistic, as families just could not afford it. However, this isn’t America and what I think or feel shouldn't be leading the charge. If the government is saying these families can and should feed their children, they should. And us continuing to give them what they could do for themselves was irresponsible, even if well intentioned.
Our secondary mission, feeding students, and the overwhelming growth it had created, was beginning to overshadow and tax our first mission, employing and empowering women. Yet, we persisted. We asked for more donations and even doubled down and hoped to enter into a partnership with a new school. Feeding students affected so many, it gave us big numbers and seemingly big change. But truthfully the impact, when broken down per family, was small. And the changes were not sustainable or responsible.
It’s not easy to admit that our best intentions didn’t pan out the way that we had hoped; that we were possibly wrong and potentially hurtful. It’s not easy to accept what feels a lot like failure. We have had multiple meetings with the school and the parents, the majority were grateful for our partnership over the years and were understanding and accepting of our decision to move on. I am proud of what we’ve done and how far we’ve come to get to this point. If I may be cliché and quote Winston Churchhill, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
And we are happy to report, we haven’t lost an ounce of enthusiasm and, in fact, are more excited than ever to take a step back in the right direction. We have learned countless lessons walking this road and we have built relationships with people, we would have never known otherwise, that will change the way we do business forever. Now that we know better, we are committed to doing better.
So we are headed back to basics! Back to the reason we started in the first place. We will be investing 100% of our time, money, and efforts into our amazing women. The ones who have been the backbone of this whole shebang all along. We are excited to go deeper, instead of wide, and watch the seeds that have been planted bloom. If you have been donating toward the feeding program, we humbly ask that you would consider continuing your donation as we turn them to focus on our ladies, where we truly have the most impact and influence. We have extremely high hopes for what we will be able to do with what we've learned and with your partnership. In fact, the first order of business will be purchasing land and building our very own retail shop and workspace for the women to showcase their work, not only to the local community but to the growing tourism sector, as well. We already have the perfect location picked out and our entire budget, from purchasing the land to setting up shop, is $10,000. There was a time that number would have gotten caught in my throat, but knowing what we know now, the sustainable growth and change that will come by owning this space makes it very easy to be bold. We are asking for your continued partnership (or new partnership) as we walk expectantly forward.
As for the ladies themselves, they are excited about the new space, but their first request was more tailoring classes, which will start after the new year. Tailoring will not only help them hone in on basic sewing skills, it will also expand on their skills and allow them to generate more work for themselves locally, sewing and mending clothes and uniforms in their community. As we’ve learned, I never want 100% of the job creation to come from the outside, and these women are actively involved and committed to building on the skills and training they been given.
Our focus on the ladies means exciting things for you, the customer, as well. It means all kinds of new products lines! We’re thinking Home, Kitchen, Baby… to name a few; however, one thing that will remain the same is our commitment to community involvement. We believe that to whom much is given, much is expected and we are excited to take what we’ve learned about true and meaningful partnership and turn it into something beautiful. Something that we don’t have to run, but positive change, that is already happening, that we can contribute to. We want to use our blessings to bless others by sharing our resources, as well as our access to markets and information. You’ll be hearing much more about this in the future.
We hope you know how eternally grateful we are to you. Your support has provided more than a million meals to a group of students who, only a few years ago weren’t eating, but will continue to eat from here on out. You have given a hand-up to so many families and helped them to see what they are capable of. Your goodwill has shown what is possible when “one” joins together for “all”. You have been a part of changing the conversation around aide and what it looks like to offer foreign support. It hasn’t been easy, but we would do it again 1000 times. And we couldn’t do it without you.
Going forward, I can’t promise you that we will get it right every time, but I can promise you that our eyes are wide open and we are giving it our best efforts. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
Thank you for walking this out with us! Here we go!