Fair trade company WORK+SHELTER gives women in Dehli, India a new means for independence.
Theresa VanderMeer may very well be one of the hardest working women in the fair trade garment industry, and she’s just getting started.
Trying to find ways in which she could truly make an impact on the world, VanderMeer went on journeys abroad and within herself before dreaming up what is now WORK+SHELTER, a fair trade garment non-profit in Delhi, India. At WORK+SHELTER, women with no applicable knowledge of the garment industry are given jobs and taught the skills necessary to thrive. The goal? To enable women to create their own independence and give them the ability to empower and support other women throughout their community and in their families.
Before building WORK+SHELTER, VanderMeer spent years investing in herself. From small town Michigan, VanderMeer longed for more opportunities than were presented to her. She wanted to travel and go to college—two things that were not commonplace in her community.
At 13 years old, one of VanderMeer’s more impassioned teachers was planning a trip to Peru, and VanderMeer knew she had to go. In order to join in, VanderMeer would have to work for over a year to come up with the funds to get there. She babysat and woke up at 5 a.m. to sweep scraps of metal at the manufacturing shop where he father worked. Now, VanderMeer sites her trip as instrumental and life changing.
“I felt like all the work from the last year and a half was all worth it for that first day,” says VanderMeer. “My world expanded in a huge way. I went to one city in Peru and realized, there’s a million cities like this all over the world and they’re all different.”
But the expanded view of the world also presented her with some troubling truths. She had never seen poverty like what she witnessed in Peru. It shook her to her core. For most people, when they are exposed to a situation much less fortunate than their own, they feel upset or moved by it for a while and then return to their normal lives. This was absolutely not the case for VanderMeer.
“Knowing what I knew, I didn’t want to return to the life I had before,” she says. “I knew the world was bigger than the one I had access to, and I was afraid I was going to be trapped in my small community.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. VanderMeer ended up snatching every opportunity to travel she could find, within the U.S. and abroad, often working at least two jobs to afford it. For her, travel wasn’t the end-all-be-all. She also understood the value of education and worked towards attending college. She was the first in her family to do so.
At University of Michigan, VanderMeer fought for and earned grants to travel to India and China, where she conducted research and interned.
“I realized my hard work led me to get what I wanted,” says VanderMeer. “I learned to trust my intuition and I built confidence from that.”
It wasn’t until a year and a half ago that VanderMeer was able to focus solely on WORK+SHELTER. When founding her organization in 2011, VanderMeer quickly realized she wouldn’t be able to financially support herself. She spent years working 50-hour weeks at her day job and mornings, nights and weekends on WORK+SHELTER.
To VanderMeer, the ability to make a difference was what kept her going. Women with little independence who were potentially in bad domestic situations now had a place where they could earn a living wage and send their daughters to school for a better future.
“When women earn an income, they have more respect for themselves and people have more respect for them,” says VanderMeer. “You have countries, like the U.S., with all this infrastructure and technologies. And then there are countries that are exporting all their resources to whatever country has more power than them. So how are these countries supposed to educate their people, invest in infrastructure? I figured out that with gender inequality, if you could give women more access to capital, then they would have more power in society.”
Having seen the real impact she’s made on these women’s lives in India, VanderMeer’s goal is to now make sure the organization becomes sustainable. Because if the organization ends, so does this opportunity for the women whom it employs.
“I don’t think you’ve been successful until you’ve created something sustainable,” she says. “I want to be able to pass this to someone else at some point I want to have the best small-scale factory on the planet.”