Brethren Center to hold annual International Festival Event to draw attention to Third World workers


For years, Gloria Whitted found herself on and off welfare in a working career that took her from military service to a variety of low-income jobs with frequent layoffs.

But now, as part of a six-member Durham, N.C., crafts cooperative, she is a businesswoman.

Whitted and two cooperative members will demonstrate how to make rolled beeswax candles and will sell their wares tomorrow at the annual International Festival sponsored by the Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocations (SERRV) at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor.

The festival this year is part of international Shop Fair Trade Day, an effort to call public attention to sweatshop labor conditions, primarily in Third World countries. The day is sponsored by the Fair Trade Federation, a Vermont-based association of organizations concerned with fair-trade issues.

The candle-making cooperative, called Candles of Hope, was started in 1994 by a Durham Presbyterian minister and a volunteer who had been trying to start a quilting cooperative. The quilting proved unprofitable, but the volunteer, Linda Wilson, is now co-director of Candles of Hope. She shares the job with Kathryn Henderson, a former board member of an organization that sold crafts made by low-income people.

"The goal was to have a craft that could be made at home, if there were some [women] who needed to work at home with their children," Henderson said. "The vast majority of the candles are still made at home."

Whitted, 41, was a single mother on welfare when Wilson began distributing fliers about the candle-making program in the housing complex where Whitted lived. She signed up.

"I went from being unemployed to being a business owner instead of just going to a job," Whitted said.

The cooperative started with five candle makers, all on public assistance, hand-rolling beeswax candles with a grant from the marketing group. Four of the original workers remain in the cooperative, which has quadrupled its sales, from $48,000 in 1995 to $200,000 last year.

The candles are marketed through churches and nonprofit gift shops such as SERRV.

Last month, Candles of Hope moved into leased space, which will allow the workers to add poured candles to their stock and expands inventory space.

"Linda's living room and dining room were our original warehouse," Henderson said.

Workers are paid by the piece, based on time trials to determine how many candles a worker can roll in an hour, Henderson said. She said a craftswoman who rolled candles 40 hours a week could earn the equivalent of $15 to $18 an hour. Earnings have varied weekly by candle orders, but Henderson said the cooperative is trying to shift to salary-based compensation.

The Candles of Hope supervisory board is conducting training sessions in business and life skills. The cooperative plans to recruit trainees who will begin as candle rollers, take the skills course and possibly move to other jobs, Henderson said.

Whitted seized the training opportunity and is the cooperative's inventory specialist.

"After two years of rolling, I got burnt out," she said.

The festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow on the 26-acre Brethren Service Center campus at 500 Main St. It will feature international dance, music, food and crafts. Admission is free. Information: 410-635-8747.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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