By Craig Kielburger
Sitting cross-legged on the grass under an old acacia tree in rural Kenya, actor Shay Mitchell was tutored in the art of intricate beading. Five Maasai mamas, dressed in traditional bright, patterned shawls, showed the Canadian star of Pretty Little Liars, how to string hundreds of tiny colourful beads into exquisite creations destined for North American stores.
With a bent needle, Mitchell carefully put each glass sphere on to a four-foot, stretchy cord, working alongside experienced mamas, who gently teased their new student as they deftly whisked through their projects.
This wasn't any ordinary craft circle; rather an example of how artisans earn an income that empowers them, and helps lift their families out of poverty.
One of the greatest joys in hosting visitors, like Mitchell, to Free The Children development projects overseas is giving them a firsthand look at the impact of simple things, such as clean water, seeds, or in this case, a beaded "Rafiki" bracelet. The Swahili word means "friend," and in North America these accessories sell for $10.
I'm almost never without a Rafiki wound around my wrist. It looks cool, reminds me to live my life with a sense of gratitude, and is a symbol of the power we all have in our wallets to change the world.
As Mitchell -- one of our passionate celebrity ambassadors - -discovered on her trip, Rafiki bracelets are gifts that give back.
Artisan Mama Toti lives in the Maasai village of Nkoyet-naiborr in Kenya. Many families like hers live on less than $1 a day. Mama Toti dreamed for years of owning a goat, so she would have milk for her family and be able to earn an income. After she joined a group of mamas beading Rafiki bracelets, like the one Mitchell spent time with, Mama Toti had enough money to buy two goats; soon, two more.
Thanks to her income as an artisan, Mama Toti now has a herd of goats, and invested her new income in upgrading her family's home from a small, dark mud hut to a more spacious tin dwelling. Instead of doing household chores to supplement the family income, her children are now in school; their future prospects will expand exponentially through education.
The cycle of empowerment continues through the generations.
When you buy a Rafiki bracelet, our social enterprise, ME to WE, provides a life-changing gift, like school supplies or medicine, for an individual in our development communities. Each chain has a "Track Your Impact" code. The person who receives a Rafiki -- or any of our ME to WE products -- enters that code online, and can see the specific benefit, such as clean water, their gift gives back, as well as the country, and village where that impact will be made. The online information also provides a sense of the individual (a mama or child) who will benefit.
The ME to WE artisans program started six years ago with 25 mamas. Today, more than 1,400 women craft necklaces, earrings and other jewelry at daily gatherings in public spaces, or each other's homes.
By the end of her trip, Mitchell realized that people in North America can empower others in developing countries through simple actions, such as buying a Rafiki bracelet. The beaded chains are not only stylish, but a reminder of the solidarity among women and girls around the world. They represent a lifetime of opportunity for Mitchell's new friends in Kenya.
Craig Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.