One side of Julie Pash’s living room has turned into a retail display with baskets, beaded necklaces and dolls lining the wall. Her spare bedroom has become a warehouse.
The goods crammed into this modest Lawrence home have been made by women thousands of miles away, women from small Uganda villages. Many are widows or first or second wives that have been abandoned by their husbands. Other than the crops they harvest in their gardens, these women have few resources to support them or their children.
Each Monday, around 35 women come to a church without walls in the Uganda village of Nawensega. They arrive with banana leaves pulled from their gardens and beads rolled together from recycled paper. At the church, the women weave baskets, string necklaces and sew together dolls.
They are paid by how much they produce. The money they earn is used to buy seed for their gardens, send their children to school, purchase a cow so they can have milk to drink or simply buy food for the day.
The women have become what is known as Project Lydia.
Stories of overcoming
In front of the dolls standing in Pash’s living room are the photos of the three women who have inspired them.
In one is a beautiful young women with a gleaming smile and dressed all in pink from the headband to the purse.
This is Harriet. The doll is wearing the pink fabric that Harriet selected and comes with a CD of her original music.
Orphaned at 15, Harriet was left responsible for raising her two sisters. Over the next 10 years, she went on to become a great singer.
Last June, Harriet died suddenly from AIDS. More than 1,500 people - including national singers and government officials - came to her funeral.
“She just touched so many lives,” Pash said.
Then there is Zaina. As a first wife, Zaina was abandoned by her husband and left, destitute, to raise her eight children. Her life started changing after she began going to church and became an enthusiastic member of Project Lydia.
Then, her husband returned, demanded the money she made from the project and beat her.
Still, Pash said, Zaina’s life is getting better. With the money she keeps from Project Lydia, Zaina has sent two of her children to school.
And finally, there is Susan, who was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army while at boarding school.
At 13, Susan was given to one of the army commanders as a wife. She was held in captivity for eight years and had two children. Both died.
When she became very sick, Susan was thrown into the field where someone found her and took her to a hospital.
She recovered and returned to school. She’s at the top of her class and hopes to go to medical school. Recently, Susan found out that she had contracted AIDS through the commander.
Pash picked these women’s stories not because they were heartbreaking, but because they were “overcoming.”
“They have become a part of our lives and we have become a part of their lives,” Pash said.
Women helping women
Entwined with the story of the dolls is the story of friendship between two women in Lawrence who were once business competitors and are now collaborating on Project Lydia.
For years, Pash and her husband, Cliff, sold curly fires, blooming onions and turkey legs out of their Century Concession stand. Always nearby would be Muriel Cook and her husband, who sold pork rinds, barbecue sauce and barbecue meats.
The couples would see each other at Lawrence’s festivals and fairs.
In 2007, Julie and Cliff Pash left the concessionaire business behind and moved to Uganda to do mission work. It was then that the two women realized they shared a passion.
Cook was part of the Children’s Ministry, collecting soccer balls, jump ropes, shoes, clothes and food to send to Third World countries.
“When I learned about their mission trip, I thought why not support them. It’s something that is local, and Julie and Cliff need the support,” Cook said.
In Uganda, Pash asked a friend if she could teach the women in the villages to make the baskets, dolls and beads that she saw in gift shops. At first the end product wasn’t very sellable.
“Over the course of several months, they just got better and better,” Pash said.
She also noticed the women working in Project Lydia began to bond, rallying behind the one with the sick child or when one of the wives was beaten by her husband.
And, Pash tells the story of a woman who walked 45 miles to Project Lydia and was excited to tell those along the way that she was heading to work.
“We are not just handing out the money. Their dignity is getting restored and their hope and purpose of life. There is just so many wonderful things that are happening,” Pash said.
Last fall, Pash brought some of the hand-made items back to Lawrence. They sold quickly. So, this year she decided to increase production.
Pash will remain in Lawrence in December to help oversee the official launch of Project Lydia, which includes an open house next weekend and a booth at the Lawrence Fall Arts and Crafts Festival.
The money raised from the goods go directly back to the women making them and to help with community development projects in their villages.
Pash’s hope is to sell as much as she can so more Ugandan women can participate in Project Lydia.
When Pash returns to Uganda, Cook will help manage the logistics of the business, such as booking shows and sharing the story. And one day, Cook hopes to travel to Uganda.
“While I can’t go there now, I can do the work here. And, there is a lot of work to be done,” she said.