By Rande Archer
Nestled in the Costa Rican countryside lies a village home to people who are the center of a Baton Rouge-based organization. Producing handmade jewelry and accessories, the women of the Guaymí people in Coppey Abajo are in the spotlight with a Baton Rouge international endeavor.
Officially fiybded two years ago by Virginia native and current Baton Rouge resident Rebecca Gardner, Hands Producing Hope has entered the realm of boutique jewelry by offering unique, indigenously produced accessories. Hands Producing Hope offers the opportunity to work to the women of Coppey Abajo, who otherwise wouldn’t have it due to the village’s remote location.
“There’s just all these things built up that inhibit them from being able to thrive really,” said Gardner. “I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, but I knew I wanted to help provide employment for the women in the community and provide a place for them to learn their value and worth. A place for them to come and be told that you can dream for the future, your ideas matter, and you have skills, so let’s figure out what those skills are. That’s not necessarily an environment they’ve ever been in before, and I knew going into it that this would be just be a starting place for us.”
Indigenous to the Costa Rican and Panamanian area, the Guaymi people are separated from the majority of their kind, 90 percent of which live to the south of the Panama border. The remaining 10 percent are further split up to three reservations allotted to them. The people are discriminated against due to their cultural differences from other Costa Ricans. Elements such as an indigenous language and traditional clothing further separate them from the vast majority of the country.
“Starting Hands Producing Hope didn’t come about for fashion, as jewelry is not my thing,” said Gardner. “Fashion industry is not my thing; it has nothing to do with that. It had to do with seeing needs of different communities around the world, especially for women and especially in remote communities where it is very difficult to get to a city where there are jobs available for them. I saw this as a tool for these people to be able to provide for themselves.”
The jewelry and accessories sold are unique as a mix of a new world and traditional style. Utilizing newer and more robust materials as a base, the artisans in the employ of Hands Producing Hope combine their traditional skills with a modern twist. The headbands sold may be created with materials not inherently available to the Guaymi, but the pattern for them is based on the dresses that the women traditionally wear there. Additionally, the bracelets sold are produced with the seeds found in their village.
“It’s more so a combination of designs,” said Gardner. “Some products have a lot less of their cultural designs tied into some products, and others a lot more so. We try to utilize local materials and materials that they had been using prior that are mainly seeds found that they collect in their village.”
Also to provide work opportunities for the women, Hands Producing Hope offers life classes that help teach basic life skills, which some of the women haven’t otherwise had the opportunity. Classes on gardening, nutrition, and personal finances are some of the topics that have been taught thus far.
According to Gardner, there are two particular women who have stood out as examples of success with the organization. One named Matilde, a single mother in her mid-30s, has been with the organization for its entire two years and has started going back to school to finish her high school degree.
Another success story is the 16-year-old Sonia, who recently had a baby. Despite having a child, Sonia was able to finish school. Working with Hands Producing Hope has allowed additional income into her household.
Since its conception two years ago, Hands Producing Hope has expanded online and into three states with physical retail stores. With ambassadors in various universities, Gardner hopes to expand into shops here in the Baton Rouge area as well as having a presence on campuses in the southeast Louisiana area such as Southeastern or LSU.
According to Gardner, Hands Producing Hope has in-office internships available for students along with non-student and professional volunteer positions. With this continuous growth, Gardner is expecting to be able to expand into another country towards the end of the year or beginning of next: Rwanda.
“We are starting a program there where we will be working on an island on a very very large lake there,” said Gardner. “It’s a very impoverished spot due to their remote location and also due to the island wasn’t claimed by a country until about 20 years ago. So in terms of getting any infrastructure built or any help from the government is very new. We’re laying the groundwork to work with particularly single moms with no access to work and communities there and most families.”
For those interested in volunteering or interning for Hands Producing Hope, visit handsproducinghope.org for additional contact information.