ROCKFORD, Mich. — A mission trip to Haiti in 2017 changed everything for Stacey Connell and her sister-in-law Grace Connell.
"We witnessed poverty as we've never seen it before, just from the living conditions to the way the streets were littered with trash," explained Stacey.
"It was so stinking sad, and it just really broke our hearts for these people," Grace added.
After spending a week in the Caribbean country, they returned to West Michigan determined to do something more to help.
"One day, we're like, 'We have this on our hearts,'" Stacey told FOX 17 News. "The next day, we were like, 'Okay, we're all in,' and that's when Espwa was born."
"Espwa" means "hope" in Haitian Creole. It's the name of the boutique the sisters have opened in Rockford, selling handmade items from recycled and repurposed goods to help families prosper in Haiti.
The volunteer-run store partners with various organizations in Haiti to create jobs and opportunities to help hardworking parents provide for their families.
"It's teaching them a skill and equipping them with what they need to be able to produce the products and then send them back to the states," explained Grace. "For instance, one of our organizations gets a lot of fabric donated by Herman Miller, and so they will send a big shipping container down to Haiti once a year, of fabric that would have been disposed of in dumpsters here or burned here in West Michigan. So, it actually gets repurposed into product for the people to make down there."
The sisters say the artisans are paid regardless of how much of their products are sold.
So far, Espwa Boutique has raised tens of thousands of dollars and helped more than 100 people. However, the sisters say the indirect impact is much more than that.
"You impact one person's life, but then they're impacting at least ten other lives just by either their purchases or who they're providing for," said Stacey.
The boutique has given Stacey and Grace the chance to educate consumers about ethical fashion, while also helping a cause near and dear to their hearts.
"I have a passion for women, and she has a passion for kids, so it really worked out on a different kind of level," said Grace. "We have different passions, but we ended up bringing them together, doing this."
Although Stacey and Grace plan to close the storefront soon (partly due to the pandemic) and transition to an online store, they say the mission will stay the same.