'Finding Dignified Ways of Lifting People Out of Poverty'
Cabbagetown non-profit aims to help refugee women gain new skills and job opportunities through the sewing trade and a movement called social entrepreneurship capitalism.
CLARKSTON — The vast warehouse in the Church Street office park here is silent, but for the choo-ka, choo-ka, choo-ka rhythmic hum of the sewing machines.
The eight women behind the machines are all refugees from Burma and are part of work training program designed to give them a skill and trade to help them become self-sufficient.
They're part of a nearly two-year-old Billboard Bags program, which was created by Plywood People, a Cabbagetown-based non-profit whose main mission is to help find solutions to lead people out of poverty.
"I love finding dignified ways of lifting people out of poverty," Jeff Shinabarger, Plywood People's founder, told East Atlanta Patch. "It's sustainable, it's celebrating them as human beings and it's not just a handout.
"Hopefully, it's changing the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their kids."
Taking old banners no longer in use or need, the women cut them up and restitch the pieces into wallets, purses and laptop bags.
The bags are then sold wholesale to companies such as IBM Corp. that are looking for gifts to hand out at their special event functions. They are also sold through retailers across the Southeast from Memphis to Orlando and locally in Decatur at Square Foot.
Some 60 percent of the money that comes into the program to support the initiative comes through the sales, Shinabarger, who lives in East Atlanta, said.
Sewing is just one part of Plywood People's strategy over the year that the women will learn to perfect their skills.
They also will learn other life skills such as the importance of showing up to work on time and dressing appropriately to paying bills when due and setting up a home budget to manage their personal finances.
English as a Second Language courses are the other part of the jobs training, he said.
Eventually, the goal is to grow the program to at least 50 to 100 participants, all from Clarkston, which has a sizable refugee community.
"We were looking for a community where we could invest in the lives of people," he said, explaining why Clarkston is the focus.
"Here in Clarkston, the greatest need is providing jobs for people."
Plywood People — which takes its name from Shinabarger's visits to distressed communities where plywood was used in place of other, more sturdy materials — also wants to pair up the refugee families with mentor families.
The goal there is give the refugee families an American counterpart willing to help them and give them advice as they make their transition into their new lives.
An events marketer by training, Shinabarger said he wants to be part of and push the social entrepreneurship movement that gets people to see the human needs around them.
It's a philosophy underscored by his recently published book, "More or Less – Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity."
As he told the Christian Post in a recent interview:
"I think socially and culturally right now there are many people who desire to be more generous with their lives. But personally, we are living in a lifestyle that is caught in this rut of wanting more, or choosing convenience over necessity, on focusing more on our desires versus what we really need."
Having spent the better part of a year visiting and working in distressed communities from Atlanta to Rwanda, before founding Plywood People, Shinabager said he wants to be a problem solver when it comes to lifiting people out of poverty through creative and dignified ways.
"You can look at people groups and call them refugees, but over time , as you'rer involved in their lives you call them by name," he said.
"And when you call a person that has, in some way, been stuck in poverty or in injustice in some way and you know them by name, then their story becomes more personal.
"These are real people with real strengths and not just weaknesses," Shinabarger continued. "And when you know them as friends, you want them to succeed."