The dirt floor is bright with a rainbow of colors. Red, yellow, blue, orange and green wool mix with the deep brown of the earth. Crochet needles clink together and laughter mingles in the air with the sound of African voices. A woman finishes stitching a label onto a hat and carefully signs it with her name. She sticks the finished hat on her head and grins. To these Ugandan women, these hats are more than just a trendy style, they're a symbol of their entire livelihood. And they are the brainchild of three young men thousands of miles away.
Travis Hartanov, '08, Kohl Crecelius and Stewart Ramsey are the trio who founded Krochet Kids International in 2007, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower people to rise above poverty.
While attending college, the three spent their summer breaks volunteering in far-flung reaches of the globe, from the Dominican Republic to Indonesia to Uganda. Each of the friends took note of the obvious poverty that afflicted many of the countries they traveled to.
Out of all the places where the trio volunteered, they believed Uganda was the worst off. They asked the people they encountered what Ugandans needed, and the answer they received from nearly everyone was that there was no work.
"We kind of saw this problem of dependency there," Hartanov said, adding that after all the years of wars and being put in displacement camps, the native Ugandans relied on outside help so much they had the mindset Hartanov described as, "I need white people to get us stuff."
Besides lack of work and education, Ugandan women face a harsh reality. The Lord's Resistance Army, a guerilla group that has displaced thousands of Ugandans in the northern part of the country, often abducts women and keeps them as sex slaves. Once released, these women have a hard time finding a community that will accept them and people who will employ them.
The trio saw these problems and thought, "Let's help these people capture this hope that says, 'Hey, I can change my future,'" Hartanov said.
After many sessions of brainstorming, the three realized their joint love of crocheting could be used to implement a program to help the women of Uganda. The three began crocheting while attending Mount Spokane High School. Crecelius caught his "cool brother" Parc crocheting a hat, a skill his older brother had picked up while at college. Curious about his brother's new hobby, Crecelius began learning to crochet and showed Hartanov and Ramsey his newfound skill. Together the three began crocheting bright-colored hats and wearing their handiwork to school. Their peers immediately took notice and the hats became a "must have" fashion statement, with the friends taking 50 orders from their classmates the first day, according to Hartanov. With an entrepreneurial mindset, the friends decided to put the money they made from the hat sales towards their senior prom.
The trio believed this same entrepreneurial mindset could help them implement a plan in Uganda. So, after they returned to Uganda in the summer of 2007, they set up a Krochet Kids home base in the town of Gulu. The organization built a facility to double as a community center and office space, with shipping and receiving facilities, guest quarters, and a large traditional hut where the women work.
Krochet Kids began by working directly with 10 women, who crochet 25 hours per week and together produce 400 to 600 hats per month. In exchange, the women earn a salary of approximately 200,000 shillings per month, which is equivalent to a teacher's salary in Uganda, Hartanov said.
Besides providing work and an income for these women, the program also allows them to send their children to school and provide for the basic needs of their families, including health care. Throughout the three-year program, the women are also provided with financial training. They learn how to set up savings accounts and the basics of savings and personal budgeting, to help them become self-sufficient.
Krochet Kids also works in the communities of the women they employ, teaching educational seminars on finance and skills training, the organization's website says. All proceeds from the sale of the women's products are infused back into the communities these women come from, helping to support and promote change.
One of the original 10 women, Beatrice, is particularly special to Hartanov.
"She's probably one of the most successful ladies in our program thus far," Hartanov said. "[She] has the best smile you'll ever see on a person."
Beatrice is married with three children. She has the dream of them going to university, a feat that is almost unheard of in Uganda, as around only 20 percent of teenagers even make it through their first year of high school. Her other dream is to open a convenience store. She's a year into the program with Krochet Kids, and already she's using her financial and skills training to sell flour, sugar and wheat to the neighbors in their community. She hopes to save up enough to buy a car, an idea that amazes Hartanov: "For her to buy a car in Uganda, are you kidding me? I can't even buy a car in the States."
When interviewing the women, Hartanov asked each woman what their life was like before the organization. Hartanov recalls Beatrice saying that in her life before Krochet Kids, she "was just living a day at a time. She said she was living like an animal, scrounging for food."
While Krochet Kids has been working in Uganda since only 2007, the program has already seen tremendous growth. In 2008, Krochet Kids spent $6,597 on distributing products for the American market, which resulted in $46,536 in sales, according to the organization's IRS Form 990. This revenue went directly to further the work the organization is doing in Uganda.
In the fall of 2009 the organization moved its headquarters to Costa Mesa, Calif. The three founding members continue to devote 40-hour weeks to the organization and oversee all areas of operation.
Following new partnerships with a number of organizations, including the national chain ZUMIEZ and the non-profit organization TOMS Shoes, Krochet Kids plans to hire an additional 60 women to their crochet program, Hartanov said.
"[Krochet Kids] is almost self-sustaining; more than half of our program is funded by the sale of hats," Hartanov said. "In the future we hope it continues to be more of the hat sales so we're less reliant on donors." The idea, he said, is that "when recessions come, a donor doesn't back out and we have to stop helping the people of Uganda. We can be somewhat self-sustainable on hat sales, and that will carry the organization."