Pearls With Purpose breaks generational poverty in developing countriesMay 12, 2023 09:01AM ● By Peri Kinder
When Wendy Bird’s husband suggested she make jewelry to sell at farmers markets, she had no idea it would turn into a global foundation that provides training, mentorship and income for hundreds of women.
Back in 2001, Bird was a stay-at-home mom with five children, looking for a project that would help rediscover her identity which had gotten lost in all the laundry and daily chores. Jewelry making seemed the perfect fit. As a certified gemologist, Bird loves pearls for the way they mimic humanity.
“I love that they’re formed because of an irritant within the lining tissue of the oyster,” she said. “The oyster can’t spew it out, it can’t do anything but secrete a soothing nacre. It can only hug the irritant and that transforms it into this lustrous gemstone. To me, that’s a perfect example of what humanity needs.”
The Riverton resident sent out a request looking to import quality pearls for jewelry making and got a response from a woman in the Philippines. The woman said if Bird imported jewelry pieces, instead of loose pearls, she would change lives.
Bird jumped on the idea and created information to make necklaces, earrings and bracelets. She emailed the docs to the Philippines and a group of women began making jewelry. Bird would import it back to the States and sell it, giving the women 64% of the profits.
Pearls With Purpose had begun. The social impact organization provides microenterprise training for women in poverty, or women rescued from sex trafficking or abuse, in the Philippines, Kenya, Peru, Dominican Republic, India and Cambodia.
For four years, everything was done through long-distance correspondence; she had never traveled internationally. But then a representative from another nonprofit invited Bird overseas to meet the women working with her.
“I landed and saw for the first time ever, these humble circumstances that the individuals live in and the struggle it was to get to the internet cafe and the cost associated with being able to print out the documents,” she said. “Everything was 10 times worse than what they’d conveyed because I put this American spin on it.”
The obstacles her jewelry makers faced hadn’t registered, even though she had trained more than 70 women at that point. Invited to stay in the home of one of the women, she was shocked at the level of poverty.
“In my head I thought I’m going to stay in a bedroom with my own toilet. No. They showed me this piece of plywood they put on the dirt floor they’d covered with a sheet that had been shipped over in a shipment that I had sent, and it happened to be one of my kid’s sheets,” Bird said. “There was no electricity. I was told to shower under this tree, and it’s mostly private. I realized these people needed more from me than I had been giving.”
That trip changed her mindset. She applied for 501(c)(3) status and started doing in-person trainings to adapt her program to their needs. She trained women in an abandoned school, she helped women living in the jungle and in villages ruled by a king. She adapted to cultural differences and language barriers and learned each woman dealt with their own difficulties.
In a leper colony in India, Bird trained 183 women on a dirt floor in a community center. As untouchables, the women couldn’t sit on chairs because their low caste status meant they couldn't sit higher than anyone else in the village. After months, Bird got permission for the women to sit on mats.
“We’re dealing with individuals who for their entire life had been told you will never go to school, you will never be counted as human, you will never have a job. You will just sit on the sidelines of life and watch it unfold,” she said. “If you’re a woman and you’ve been told a very specific stigma your entire life and all of a sudden you hear that it could be different from what you’ve always known, wouldn’t you show up?”
An orphanage in Cambodia reached out to Bird, asking her to bring Pearls With Purpose to their location, training teens from 15-17 in jewelry making so they would have a skill when they left the orphanage at age 18. Often, those 18-year-olds turned to sex work or drugs, but with a skill to fall back on, they could create a different life.
“A year after that training, we got the first email that [a young man] was going to a university in Australia and because of this program he has the $5,500 to attend this university,” Bird said. “So all of a sudden you can see that it’s working.”
In the Dominican Republic and Kenya, Bird worked with children rescued from sex trafficking through Operation Underground Railroad. She taught them to polish, design and wire-wrap gemstones to allow them to create an income.
Along with jewelry tools, Pearls With Purpose also purchases sewing machines, computers and other items women can use to better their lives. Bird teaches them to meet with wholesalers and negotiate prices.
Right before COVID hit, Bird met with some women in the Philippines. They were talking with her but she couldn’t remember their names. She asked what training session they’d completed.
“One of them said, ‘You didn’t train me. You trained my mom. Because of you, I went to college. My mom put me in school. She had enough money.’ Another said, ‘Hi, I’m Janet’s daughter and this is my baby and I married a good man because I went to this university because you trained my mom.’
“It was this generational break in poverty,” Bird said. “I just started bawling. It was so unexpected. You sit there and listen to these younger adults and you know because you landed on that plane in 2005, they were the ones running around barefoot in their little tank tops and shorts…and here they are dressed so properly you don’t even recognize them and they’re saying, you trained my mom and my life is different now.”
Pearls With Purpose endured through COVID on fumes and held a fundraiser in February to rebuild its accounts. The community can help by purchasing jewelry and books at Pearlswithpurpose.org, donating cash or frequent flier miles, and by spreading awareness on Facebook and Instagram.
Bird’s husband, David, is her biggest cheerleader. As travel opens back up in developing countries, he wants her to get back to doing what she does best: teaching women to build self-reliance and self-worth.
“For years, she has given keynote speeches and had the opportunity to sell the jewelry that these women make,” he said. “My wife is amazing and has dedicated her life to helping hundreds of women in several different developing countries.” λ