Boots and her beads: How did Bead for Life get started? Part I of a series

February 22, 2019
By Marcy Shortuse

Many of you, over the last several years, have noticed me standing near the post office on a beautiful afternoon selling brightly colored jewelry. Many of you have purchased and supported the nonprofit organization called “Bead For Life.” Many of you, I have recently discovered, are curious to know the story of how Bead for Life got started, my connection with it, and where we are going as our mission develops to eradicate poverty by 2027.
The story begins in 2004 with one courageous woman named Millie Grace Akena. In a chance encounter, Devin Hibberd and our mother, Torkin Wakefield, and a friend, Ginny Jordan, met her while walking through an Ugandan slum. Millie was sitting outside her mud home, rolling beads from strips of paper under a hot sun, and the women stopped to talk to her.  They discovered that Millie and some friends enjoyed making paper-beaded bracelets, but there was no market for them.
Buying all the pieces, which were rather crude, compared to the quality control we have now, the women bought everything she had, returned to Boulder, Colorado and hosted a party for friends. Immediately they sold out!  After a “think tank” of  some months, they knew that their mission was to give these entrepreneurial women an opportunity to use their skills to increase their daily income. At the time the women worked in a quarry in the hot sun, breaking up large stones into small ones to build roads for 65¢ a day.
While baking Christmas cookies in 2010 and watching the Today show, a segment about Bead for Life was discussed as the “gift that keeps on giving,” supporting and encouraging women to better their lives in this war- torn third-world country. I was immediately interested, as most of my volunteer life centered around empowering women. I contacted Devin and told her I wanted to give a bead party. Little did I know then that one party would become another and another, until it became a full-time, year-round volunteer job as a community partner.
So here I am nine years later, with three trips to Uganda and another one this year, able to bear witness to the positive changes selling beads has made for the lives of impoverished families.
We have reached more than 40,000 women. Approximately 89 percent of our graduates have profitable businesses. There is a 1,462 percent AVERAGE increase in income for women who joined BFL making 65¢ a day.  This means that women and their families can eat three meals a day and send their children to school and provide for medical needs. This is HUGE!
But let me a tell a story about someone I know named Teddy Namuyiga, who graduated from BFL in 2012.
As a 38-year-old single mother of three, Teddy was devastated when her husband left due to her daughter having a hearing impairment. She was recruited from the slums to bead for BFL for two years, the standard time. Within months she could feed her kids and began saving a third of what she made for a future business.
Teddy’s dream was to open a school, and within three years of beading, in 2015, her dream became a reality when she started an elementary school in her Nabbingo community.  Her Precious Moments Kindergarten now serves Nabbingo and surrounding communities and has grown from 15 to 100 students. She employs eight teachers, two female cooks and one security guard. The student fees amount to $108 per year.
In Teddy’s true form of transforming challenges into opportunities, she created fundraising and saving initiatives. The school grows some of its food like maize, potatotes and beans to reduce food expenses.
Thanks to Bead for Life’s training, Teddy now supports her own family while educating children – her true passion. Her oldest daughter will graduate next year from university, her second daughter will be joining university this year, and her last child is a student at Mengo School for the Deaf, where she is learning hairdressing skills. She says, “Bead for Life helped me to believe in determination and hard work. This has greatly helped me to contribute to the change I desire to see in my community.”
One more story. Millie Nakaye graduated from Bead Fof Life five years ago. When I first met her she was selling tomatoes and peas along the streets of Kampala, trying hard to support her family. With six children, life was difficult to say the least. She became a beader, saved enough during the requisite time to bead, and at graduation had enough to invest in her fledgling business. She is now one of the top pea distributers in the Owino market, the biggest trade center in Kampala. She earns $160 monthly from her peas and and saves $13, an amount she could not save before. She now grows her own peas on her farm, so she supplies her own market. She faces challenges for sure, one of them being the price flucuation of peas which she explains to her customers in order to educate them to trust her. She has hired three employees to help her. With some of her profit, she bought a piece of land where she is constructing brick houses to rent, which she hopes to finish this year. She has purchased three cows and sells their milk for more income. With hard work, Millie is a confident entrepreneur who is proud of her accomplishments.
More to come: how we train beaders, the Ugandan educational system and how Lucy Oyella, a nursing student, is changing her life.
For more information, watch this video on YouTube:
Read more about Boots and Bead for Life in Part II next week …