Sunday, October 17, 2010

Idaho card company employs deaf women in China as part of their vocational training

From The Spokesman-Review in Wash.:
The name may be itty bitty but the scope of the project is far-reaching.

Itty Bitty Witty Knitties is a greeting card business based in Kim Cheeley’s itty bitty Coeur d’Alene home, but she employs about a dozen workers in China.

All deaf women, the workers knit swatches and handmade mini-quilts for Cheeley’s cards. They’re unemployable due to their handicap and do not have easy access to education. They participate in the vocational training programs of Asia Project Grace in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in south-central China.

It is through Asia Project Grace they are taught Chinese sign language, live in apartments, make a living wage, and are provided with health insurance and retirement.

In the summer of 2001, Cheeley traveled to Kunming to teach an intensive English class to the children of some of those working with her brother, Asia Project Grace Founder and Director Dr. Rob Cheeley.

The organization does humanitarian mission work in a dozen areas, including agriculture, leprosy, community and business development, education, medical and dental work, prosthetics, AIDS education, and orphan foster care. Rob Cheeley has lived in Kunming since 1992.

While residing in Kunming, Kim Cheeley had the opportunity to work with the deaf women, teaching them quilting techniques.

A few years later, when Cheeley was mulling over the idea of starting a greeting card company, she had the idea of contracting with the deaf women.

“It seemed like a match made in heaven,” says Cheeley.

She soon had sales reps to present her line all over the country, and another brother, Chris, who was willing to invest the seed money necessary to get “the ball rolling.”

In the summer of 2006, Cheeley was planning to work in Mexico and write a book. Her plan was aborted when she became ill and was forced to return home.

In her late-night delirium the name Itty Bitty Witty Knitties came to her, and she started writing greeting card sentiments.

“I jumped in with both feet not really knowing what a home-based business was all about,” says Cheeley.

Consequently, she has spent a lot of time reinventing wheels and discovering common business practices by trial and error.

“The journey has been life-changing,” says Cheeley, who officially opened the business in 2007.

After she receives the knitted swatches and handmade mini-quilts, Cheeley’s mother, Betty, and friend, Mollie Todhunter, do the assembly work at card tables in their living rooms.

Cheeley has the fun job of making up the card sentiments, many of which are humorous.

The two best sellers are: “Friends don’t let friends knit drunk;” and “There’s a very fine line between hobby and mental illness,” and inside, “I walk the line.”

Other sentiments like “Thinking of you…and wishing you wool;” and a Christmas sentiment, “Peace on earth…Good wool to all!” make the cards appealing to everyone.

Currently, Cheeley has two national distributors and 430 retail outlets in the United States and Canada. The cards may be purchased in the Coeur d’Alene area at Mary Jane’s Farm, Forget Me Not, Bear Paw Quilting and Bernina, and Harmony Yarn. In Sandpoint, they are available at Something Old, Something New.

A piano teacher, author, a long time knitter and potter, Cheeley also teaches English as a Second Language at the North Idaho College Adult Basic Education Center in Coeur d’Alene.

“I have always lived a patchwork life – with a number of creative outlets, so Itty Bitty Witty Knitties just fits my lifestyle,” says Cheeley.

The future looks bright for Cheeley’s business as interest in home arts, such as knitting, quilting, and crocheting, has surged in the last few years.

“It feels good to me to know that knitters and quilters are sharing a laugh – and the connection with the ladies in China warms my heart,” says Cheeley.