Life Line from the Big Sky to Ethiopia
Hand-crafted jewelry seeks to end extreme poverty
To the average person, the copper and nickel plated beads have an earthy look. Some appear a bit rough around the edges and it's clear they were hand-fashioned without the help of modern machinery. Heather Reiland knows these beautiful and hand-crafted beads are a life line. They symbolize the daily fight of hundreds of Ethiopian women suffering from HIV/AIDS who are trying to escape extreme poverty. These self-made artisans are turning the scars of war — recycled bullets — into beautiful works of wearable art that can be found right here in Billings.
"The idea is so redemptive, coming from post war and using the bullets to create something beautiful in the present day with jewelry," says Heather, who has made it one of her missions to help promote the Bullets to Beauty cause.
How did this Billings woman become so passionate about a group of women that live literally a half of a world away? It all came down to connections and timing. Bullets to Beauty is one of the projects funded by the non-profit called My Fight. This charitable organization was launched five years ago in Billings by one of Heather's friends, former resident and Harvest Church member Jesse Murphy. He created the organization as a way to provide a funding stream for micro loans. One of his foundation's mottos is "The most powerful force in the fight to end extreme poverty is a mother with a micro loan."
These small loans, typically $200 to $400, are giving women in Honduras the capital to buy supplies to get a tortilla business off the ground. The loan provides the money necessary for a Ugandan woman to create enough pairs of sandals to save for a college education. Or, it is the fuel to get a mother off the streets and prevent her from having to beg just to provide for her two kids in the rural Ethiopian mountain town of Entoto.
"It's not a hand out, it's a hand up," Heather says. "It's equipping women with the business skills that will carry them through the rest of their lives." To Jesse Murphy, watching this jewelry making operation flourish is awe inspiring. He says, "The area these women are from is considered one of the most desperately poor parts of the exceptionally beautiful country known as Mount Entoto. This area is home to a few thousand women with HIV/AIDS." Heather adds, thanks to Bullets to Beauty, these women are no longer ostracized. "There, they find the fellowship of other women and children," she says. They join forces to work in order to avoid being sex trafficked and to avoid a life of begging on the streets. They earn enough to send their children to school. Their work even provides enough to pay for their HIV/AIDS medications. Heather stresses, "It is all about them growing in their confidence."
Today, Bullets to Beauty employs close to 200 women and pays them more than twice the area's minimum wage. The workers rely on shepherds to gather up the bullet casings in once war torn areas. Artisans melt down the beads and either nickel or copper plate them, forging them into beads. The women then take the beads and artistically create bracelets, necklaces and earrings that are sold in a few Billings area shops and all over the world via the Internet. The profits made on the jewelry not only provide for the women's wages, they help fund micro loans all over the world. Jesse says, "These women not only have hope for themselves, but everyday as they put on their work uniform and walk through their community, they bring hope to the other women in the community." He dreams big when he looks to the future."Together, we hope to employ the entire hillside and all 2000 women on it."
Over the summer, Heather took the Bullets to Beauty pieces to events like SummerFair and Strawberry Festival. At each and every event, she knew the jewelry would be a conversation starter and a chance to educate others. She says, "The jewelry comes with a story, that's what so special."
Earlier this year, Heather started what she calls "Girls Night Out" events, where a $15 ticket not only buys you an authentic Ethiopian dinner, but there's a private trunk show for attendees to purchase Bullet to Beauty creations. One recent event in Red Lodge brought in 200 women and raised $18,000 for the cause. "I feel very blessed, extremely so!" Heather says, "Because across the ocean I am able to have that connection with these women — to see them want to better themselves, their family and their community through their hard work. They burn the midnight oil using their needle-nose pliers to make all of these beads into something beautiful."
The impact is already being felt.
"In just the one year we've been working with them, we've contributed to over $30,000 in employment," Jesse says. Since the U.S. dollar can be spread so far in this small Ethiopian mountain area, Jesse adds, "That's a $330,000 economic impact on the community and surrounding area."
Heather is hoping the holiday season brings a special kind of gift back to these self made artisans. She knows Bullets to Beauty jewelry is a gift that can be wrapped with a pay it forward feel. "People who buy our jewelry love the cause. They love to buy gifts and they say things like, 'My sister would love this!' or 'My best friend would just love the concept behind this!'"
Heather knows when she dons these one of a kind pieces, she's able to spread a little knowledge and possibly hope. The jewelry is unique enough that when she wears it, someone is bound to notice and ask where she bought it. "For me, every time I turn around, I am able to start a conversation with women about it." Each time she puts on a pair of Bullets to Beauty earrings she says, "It is so personal."
Editor's Note: You can find Bullets to Beauty jewelry at the Better Together Boutique located at 1938 Grand Avenue in Billings and at Montana Gallery at 22 North Broadway in Red Lodge.