Handmade purses at Freeport gallery help support nonprofit

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When buying a handbag, it's unlikely one will consider the maker, unless it's a designer like Louis Vuitton or Coach.

Organizers of the nonprofit organization Mi Esperanza — Women of My Hope, hope that will change when shoppers buy purses that help women, children and families in Honduras.

Organizers would like those purchasing the colorful bags — available in the Alle-Kiski Valley at the Canvas Art & Gift Shop in Freeport — to think of the women who made them, not because they are big names in the fashion industry, but because they are individuals working to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

Maria Rafaela Espinal, a 35-year-old mother of three from a small Honduran village, is one of the women who makes the purses.

With help from the organization, she took sewing classes and learned how to create items like the colorful bags, which are sold throughout the United States.

She can support her family now. “I think it's a very inspirational story, what these women are doing,” says Marce Urbanski, who owns the Freeport business, which also is an art gallery.

“I'm hoping that the concept itself will catch on. We can get back to realizing that we can do these things, that we can help others.”

Helping others is key to what the Louisiana-based Mi Esperanza — Women of My Hope has been doing for more than 10 years. Volunteers travel to Honduras to train women. In addition to learning to sew, some also learn beauty skills and are able to turn those skills into a sustaining career.

“Purchasing with a purpose” is one way Karen Lindberg of South Buffalo describes the organization's efforts.

A couple of years ago, Lindberg saw an opportunity to generate local support by selling handbags and other Mi Esperanza items at Urbanski's gallery.

“I was excited about the concept,” Urbanski says. “It's something that I feel we could be doing anywhere. It's the generosity of the women taking the time to teach these women skills, and they are able to turn that into lifelong skills.

“I really am proud to have (the items) at the store.”

Visitors to the gallery were excited about the bags, which range from hobo slings to tie-dye purses. “The purses appeal to all ages,” she says. “That's what makes it fun.”

Other Mi Esperanza items available at the Freeport business include scarves, jewelry and wallets made from recycled plastic shopping bags.

Lindberg serves on the group's nationwide board of directors and is part of its effort to help educate women in Honduras and to provide their families with homes and start businesses.

“They get paid for making (the handbags), so it's about using the talent of the women,” Lindberg says. “Every dollar goes back to materials, to school, to paying our teachers. It all goes back to our program.”

In Honduras, she says, groups of more than 20 people may live together in a tiny hut. One of the program initiatives involves building homes for individual families for as little as $1,500.

In addition to selling Mi Esperanza items at trade shows, Lindberg writes grants for the organization. The education the women receive is priceless, she says. It not only gives them a skill, it also gives them hope and ambition.

Lindberg has been involved with the program for about seven years.

She initially was a donor — giving money to help the organization buy treadle sewing machines — which were needed because there was no electricity in the villages.

It wasn't long after that, though, that Lindberg set out with a small group from the United States to meet the women involved in Mi Esperanza. She wanted to help them to further establish their training centers.

“The story that I have of our first trip to Honduras, I think, is a powerful one,” Lindberg says. “It was five women who didn't know each other, all came from different religious backgrounds, powerful jobs.”

Those women faced harsh weather, hunger and other struggles. Unprepared for the climate, they slept each night in three or four layers of clothing.

“When people say to me, ‘I can't do this' or ‘I'm not sure' — well, it was amazing what they did in seven days.”

Lindberg saw one of the first classes of Mi Esperanza-trained women graduate. Some would go on to start cosmetology or sewing businesses, supported by micro-loans from the group.

“It's moving,” she said. “When you go to their graduation and you see their work. It gives you a feeling of jubilance.”

Julie Martin is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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