Monday, May 25, 2009

Awareness jewelry lets disabled craftspeople shine

From the Boston Globe:

Work is more than a job for Cheryl Bleakney.

People sell things every day, and some even like what they sell. But Bleakney is passionate, and not just about the quality of the merchandise she takes with her everywhere she goes, but about the people who make the products and the facility that supports their unique endeavor.

Bleakney sells jewelry, but not the kind you see at every shopping mall. What she carries in her car, and takes to schools and conferences and fund-raisers and walks and churches and anywhere people gather is "exceptional jewelry" made by "exceptional people," beautiful works of art designed to remind a wearer of someone beautiful in their lives.

True Meaning Jewelry is custom-made and skillfully handcrafted in a workshop in Hanson. Sterling silver and Swarovski beads are strung together one by one into bracelets representing a cause: autism, breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Special Olympics, Down syndrome. And anything else a customer might request.

The company is just a year old, and small, with fewer than a dozen workers. But awareness jewelry is a big seller these days, bracelets the new bumper sticker, people wanting other people to know what they care about. So if you Google awareness jewelry, hundreds of causes come up.

This is good news for True Meaning Jewelry and great potential for growth, because who they are and what they do is unique. The artisans who create every custom-made piece aren't just artists, but the very people they're creating the jewelry to honor. All of them have some intellectual and physical challenges. One is visually impaired and needs a magnifying glass to see. Some have Down syndrome and have trouble with fine motor skills. All need direction and accommodations, yet here they are working diligently and earnestly because they know what they're doing is important. And they take pride in this.

Here's what usually happens in such a workplace: An artist designs and makes a piece of jewelry, sells it, donates a percentage of the sale to the cause the jewelry represents. And the rest is profit.

Here's what happens at True Meaning Jewelry: Bleakney designs the jewelry and the artisans make it. They sell it and donate a percentage of the sale to the cause the jewelry represents. But the rest is their collective salary, their personal pride and their independence.

"Last year at this time, we were making jewelry for another company," said Bleakney, a resident of Kingston. "And I thought, 'Why can't we make our own jewelry and do it for awareness? Who better to do this than these men and women? Why can't we start our own little business?' "

Bleakney went to her bosses at New England Village, a nonprofit residential community in Pembroke, which also runs the workshop in Hanson, and presented her plan. The village's stated mission is to help "adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities . . . lead dignified and enriching lives filled with opportunities for growth and friendship." This was definitely an opportunity for growth and friendship. They gave Bleakney the thumbs up.

Bleakney painted a vacant room, made country cottage curtains, and created a cozy, artistic, comfortable environment for the new artists.

And so it began.

The goal now, she said, is to create more work. "We have 10 young people working. I would like to see 20. I have to advocate. I have to get the word out. Because I really have to keep these guys working."

They're home grown. They love making jewelry. They're involved and engaged and not easily distracted, even when a visitor is looking over their shoulders. They stick to the task.

Their jewelry comes packaged in a silky pouch with silver stars and a thank-you card from the artisans.

"Who better to benefit from awareness jewelry?" Bleakney asks.