Vi Bella work brings hope to Haitian artisans – nwestiowa.com

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Updated: November 24, 2022 @ 7:46 am

Vi Bella founder and CEO Julie Hulstein holds an ornament made by one of Vi Bella’s Haitian artisans. Shopping at the Vi Bella Boutique in Sioux Center or online helps support the more than 80 artisans working with the faith-based ministry in Haiti.
Shopping at the Vi Bella Boutique in Sioux Center or online helps support the more than 80 artisans working with the faith-based ministry in Haiti.
Shopping at the Vi Bella Boutique in Sioux Center or online helps support the more than 80 artisans working with the faith-based ministry in Haiti.

Vi Bella founder and CEO Julie Hulstein holds an ornament made by one of Vi Bella’s Haitian artisans. Shopping at the Vi Bella Boutique in Sioux Center or online helps support the more than 80 artisans working with the faith-based ministry in Haiti.
SIOUX CENTER—Handmade goods. Global impact.
For the past 11 years, the Vi Bella organization based in Sioux Center has provided life-changing employment to artisans in Haiti and Mexico, making their lives, families and communities more beautiful.
“Vi Bella means ‘Beautiful Life’ and that is what we aim to create for all of the artisans that hand craft our products,” said Vi Bella founder and CEO Julie Hulstein of Sioux Center. “At the heart of our ministry, it is our mission to help men and women live the beautiful life that God intended for them. We are creating more than jewelry and accessories, we are building bridges across cultures and creating a path out of poverty.”
The ethically-made accessories, home goods and jewelry are sold wholesale as well as through Vi Bella Boutique online and in store at 24 19th. St SW, Sioux Center.
In Haiti specifically, Vi Bella directly employs 31 artisans and five managerial staff who live in or near the capital of Port-au-Prince as well as more than 50 independent artisans who run and own their own business.
Many of those artisans were tragically impacted by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Some are deaf, others are amputee survivors making a life for themselves and their families.
“When you shop with Vi Bella, you are helping us continue to provide support and medical assistance, and prosthetics to those in need,” Hulstein said. “Each purchase made also supports their families, especially through the growing political unrest in Haiti.”
Shopping at the Vi Bella Boutique in Sioux Center or online helps support the more than 80 artisans working with the faith-based ministry in Haiti.
Violence, natural disasters and political instability have plagued Haiti for decades, but in recent months, the country has descended deeper into socioeconomic and political chaos as armed gangs have ramped up their turf wars. According to the U.N., gangs are believed to control some 60 percent of Port-au-Prince, raping women, children and men and setting homes on fire as they fight to control more territory in the wake of the July 2021 assassination of Haiti President Jovenel Moïse.
About 96,000 people in Haiti’s capital have been force to flee their homes, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration report Friday, Oct. 28, as the country faces a crisis that has prompted the government to request the immediate deployment of foreign troops.
Most recently, the armed gangs have shut off access to Haiti’s main fuel terminal, decimating basic services amid a cholera and hunger crisis.
“I know Haitians older than myself who have said this is the worse they’ve seen the unrest in their country,” said Hulstein, 63. “They, too, don’t know exactly what the end game is for the people supporting the gangs. Some groups supporting the gangs want the current government ousted. Others seem like they just want to achieve control. In a way it seems like there’s a lot of angry people who don’t like their life situation and want something different.”
That control is seen in many ways but especially in blocking roads to limit where people can and cannot travel.
“When you limit transportation, that cuts down on the taxi service jobs, which are already limited because they can’t buy gas so then the people are not able to go where they want to go,” Hulstein said. “That affects their ability to get food. They have to go to market a couple times a week because they don’t have home pantries like we do. Market days are a big deal, but those can’t run when people can’t move around to them. That also means people can’t get clean drinking water. They don’t have electricity or running water underground like we do. They depend on tanker trucks because they don’t have a lot of well water. If those tanker trucks aren’t brining around water, people are limited to where they can get their water. If they’re having to drink out of the streams, that’s anything but clean when people are washing clothes, bathing, going to the bathroom and then even drinking from the same place. That’s why cholera is a growing problem.
Another part of that control is that schools throughout the nation are not allowed to be in session.
“Many Haitian families are poor. When a child goes to school, they’re given a meal and that’s their main meal for the day,” Hulstein said. “Not going to school means more kids are going hungry. And when families can’t buy much food because the markets aren’t there or the prices are so astronomically high, that means even more children and families are going hungry.
“Despite that, despite the danger, in a county that has an 80-percent unemployment rate, which is getting worse, our Haitian managerial staff have received thank you notes and encouragement from some of our artisans for continuing to stay open, for continuing to provide jobs and support families. It’s given them hope.”
Through What’s App, Hulstein receives almost daily updates on the turmoil the staff and artisans are witnessing. On Wednesday, Nov. 16, for example, she received video footage walking through a ransacked building the Haitian team had hoped to use as a safe space for the sewing group of artisans. Every window had been torn out. Garbage littered every inch of the floors. Dents were made in the walls.
Shopping at the Vi Bella Boutique in Sioux Center or online helps support the more than 80 artisans working with the faith-based ministry in Haiti.
This is also why Hulstein does not share with the public exactly who Vi Bella artisans are or where they live.
“We want to keep our artisans safe,” Hulstein said, noting the Haitian managerial team have various save spaces and buildings they watch as they’ve had to help artisans move and set up shop various times, especially in the past year. However, Vi Bella artisans have felt directly impacted by gang activity since gangs burned their campus in which Vi Bella had a store, space for visitors and work space about two years ago.
“There had been fighting nearby by; we thought we were getting by pretty well,” Hulstein said. “Then, one night the facility was burned. We don’t know how they got it, but it was completely destroyed.”
Hulstein said the organization tried keeping those artisans employed in their homes, but that wasn’t working well.
“Then COVID hit, and we thought that was going to be the end of Vi Bella,” Hulstein said. “We were forced to do things differently; we were forced to have a hands-off approach and give the artisans more control and it worked very well. We were amazed. We had just such a tremendous year in sales.”
Now the company as a whole has continued moving toward cutting back its U.S. leadership and working toward equipping its leaders in Haiti and Mexico. A Haitian manager even has some ownership in the company and many Haitian artisans have moved up into managerial or advisory roles.
“It’s been so amazing to see some of these women today; some were so shy, wouldn’t talk and now after gaining a skill, they’ve gained confidence and talk and smile,” Hulstein said. “I’m not going to say everything is perfect. Having a job does not make their life a piece of cake. They still have it tough. They still have a hard time, lots of obstacles, but they have a lot more confidence because they can provide for their family and see a future.”
Artisans are given scholarships for their children to attend school as well. Such scholarships are generated through the nonprofit Vi Bella Serves.
“Our artisans are healthier physically, mentally and spiritually and a lot of that is being part of a community, not just because we gave them something,” Hulstein said. “By not being isolated in their home and just trying to survive every day, now they’re part of a bigger community, in a group that has a goal working together. They have some pride in their company and I am so proud our artisans.”
The main two ways Sioux Center residents can support Vi Bella’s Haitian artisans is through prayer and purchasing an item online or through the boutique. Much of the holidays sales at the local boutique as well as sales from a fundraiser in the words will go toward funding some safe housing for artisans who have been displaced by violent gangs, for solar lights to make homes of deaf artisans more safe and secure at night, and for school sponsorships for artisan children.
To learn more about Vi Bella and shop some Black Friday or Cyber Monday sales, visit www.vibella.com. Or, to donate, visit the nonprofit, Vi Bella Serves at www.vibellaserves.com.
“The artisans are so proud of what they do,” Hulstein said. “They’re amazing. I can’t even put into words what it’s like to see what they’re able to do. The biggest thing we can do is keep supporting these artisans.
Vi Bella history
The inspiration for Vi Bella grew out of a mission trip in 2010 when Hulstein visited Haiti for the first time. That experience opened her eyes to the far-reaching impact of poverty and the everyday needs of the Haitian people.
Without a job or opportunity to earn an income, there is no access to health care, education or way for parents to provide for their families. Husltein’s heart broke for the people of Haiti and the wife, mother and former teacher left with a deep-rooted desire to provide a livelihood for the men, women and children living in such conditions.
“I dove into this idea that a real way to offer lasting change would be through employment,” Hulstein said.
The answer to the prayer on her heart came in 2011 the form of Vi Bella, an accessories brand that provides those living in poverty with a sustainable job, consistent income and a supportive community — a business model that builds a pathway out of poverty for artisans and their families involved in the ministry.
The employment created through Vi Bella allows artisans access to food, water, improved housing and keeps families together.
Before 2019, Hulstein traveled about 10 times a year to Haiti or Mexico; she hasn’t been to either county since 2019 mostly due to political unrest in Haiti and the coronavirus pandemic.
However, in 2019, the ministry opened its Sioux Center boutique.
“I thank our community,” Hulstein said. “We have had such great support from so many people — many volunteers throughout the years, those who’ve been part of our team, churches who’ve supported us, those who have donated and those who’ve made purchases because each purchase has a positive impact by providing life-changing employment in areas that lack resources.”
Business: Vi Bella Boutique
Founder and CEO: Julie Hulstein
Address: 24 19th St. SW, Sioux Center
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday.
Phone: 712-722-4112
Online: vibella.com
This is the first in a three-part series connecting with local individuals and organizations impacted by the turmoil in Haiti.
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