Keela Buford, July 13, 2020
Firstly, let’s explain artisanal candle making to any of those who are unfamiliar. Candle making was developed independently in many places throughout history. Candles were made by the Romans beginning about 500 BC. These were true dipped candles and made from tallow. Evidence for candles made from whale fat in China dates back to the Qin Dynasty.
Now, in our present times, this craft is still thriving in many spaces. However, there is one in particular that is truly lighting the way. Human trafficking is an epidemic in the United States. Since 2007, over 50,000 trafficking cases have been reported through the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Within the RE+NEW+ALL work space, in Memphis, TN, a group of survivors gather each week to learn artisanal candle making, and through it, are given an opportunity to earn an income from the sold candles, build their resume, obtain job skills, ignite their creativity, and grow professionally in a safe and nurturing working environment.
Each soy wax, hand-poured candle in an appropriate candle jar is completed with a cotton wick, ensuring that they are non-toxic and safe to burn. And burn they do, very well, with collections that offer 60+ hour burn times or up to a 12-hour burn time. As a final touch, every single candle is infused with hope and personally signed by the candlemaker herself.
With such a unique and inspirational yet much needed action-oriented mission, we had to sit down with our partner RE+NEW+ALL’s founder Lee Howard and discover how the journey started and how we all can continue to keep it going, even in our own daily lives and businesses.
Here’s to being the change.
All images courtesy of Lee Howard.
How did this social enterprise start?
Well, it’s a long one, so let me know if I go too fast or if it’s too much. [Laughs] I have a degree in Psychology, and now I am getting my license in Clinical Mental Health counseling. I worked at a 2-year recovery program called A Way Out for women who were trafficked and I was one of their staff members, Assistant Program Counselor and the Events Coordinator. Part of my role as the events coordinator was to plan extra-curricular activities for the women, but with A Way Out being a small non-profit I had to rely heavily on volunteers. If volunteers did not come, I had to get creative with little to no budget. I was burdened over this one day as I was talking to my mother-in-law who had recently launched a DIY home decor crafting company called A Maker’s Studio. I was sharing with her how I was struggling to find creative avenues for the trafficked women survivors and she immediately told me to bring the ladies for arts and crafts to her new studio.
Each Wednesday, I would take the ladies to the studio and as I started to observe their hands and their spirits while working with the crafts, this led me to realize that there is a therapeutic element to creativity and craft making.
We discovered that when we talked to them throughout the process and engaged with them, that we learned a lot from them opening up. My mother in law learned from one of the girls, Casondra (who you’ll learn more about shortly) that a big thing for them was wishing that they could get employment and earn some money while they were in recovery. So, my mother in-law added a candle line to her company and began employing the women as candle makers. She hired an artisan to teach the women and I assisted as trauma support. And from my trauma-focused learnings in my counseling license I am currently pursuing, I learned that these women in recovery need more intensive care and that there needed to be an actual focus on recovery along with the employment component.
So, in 2019, I had the opportunity to take the candle line out from under my mother in-law’s company and launch RE+NEW+ALL as its own social enterprise. This would allow me to continue providing employment opportunities for the women while creating a therapeutic work model that is specifically tailored for those who are recovering from trauma. Meaning that when any of the survivors might get overwhelmed or have a trying moment, I give them room for that and let them know that this won’t be a reason for any termination of employment. They need those allowances.
And that’s how the system goes now. The prior organization I worked with, A Way Out, provides the housing, counseling, and rehabilitation component. Then they send their survivors to me a few times each week to implement their recovery strategies while learning job skills and earning an income. The goal is once they graduate their recovery program they will secure full time employment and have a nest egg to buy the things they need to start fresh, like a down payment on a car or apartment.
Furthermore, the candle industry is a $2 to $3-billion-dollar industry, a popular industry, and so we wanted to provide another component of common good to it that would be accessible to many consumers.
I like that you mention that last piece because that was my next question…Why candles? Why artisanal candle making?
Well, most practically, candles tied in with the home décor base of my mother-in-law’s company and so it logically stemmed from that. But additionally in a thematic way, for candles, it’s about the home. The scent and memory. It is smell memory. You can smell something and be reminded of something in your childhood, your favorite place to eat, or anything else. Scent takes you back to those happy, warm places. The candles are also a great representation of what the company is about. We want to shine a light on human trafficking.
And lastly, again, candles are a huge industry. People love candles, especially for the feelings they provide. So we understand that people want to support mission-based products, but also just want to buy candles too. This was a perfect gateway into that.
[Editor Note: Candles are therapeutic, but also a prominent trigger of smell memory, most accurately known as olfactory memory.]
How did Jar Store come in? How did you discover us?
One of the big reasons is because we love to support other American companies since we’re American made. To be able to get the price point we needed, getting a quality product that fits into our margin, we had to look around. From the research we did, you guys were the lucky winners. We love the glassware that you offer.
What has been the biggest obstacle for RE+NEW+ALL? Whether in getting off the ground monetarily in order to maintain and build this mission or in the candle making process itself in terms of sourcing the products needed and teaching the survivors?
I think one of the biggest is creating that awareness of what we’re doing as a startup. We’re about to hit our 1-year anniversary and getting that word out in order to find more supporters has been hard.
To give you my own backstory and how it ties in with this, since my mother-in-law’s company is direct sales, I couldn’t just take her customers as immediate buyers of my candles at my own business to get the ball rolling. I would have to find my own sources and kick this enterprise off with my own sources. So like I mentioned, I’m in grad school. There was a time that I moved to the Mid-South and I lived out in the middle of nowhere in not a really good place because I couldn’t afford to live in the city. I was in complete isolation, which led to me making poor choices and I ended up in an abusive relationship. There was a couple who came to my church and they offered me a place to live, which allowed me to move to the city and help give me a fresh start. It was a two-bedroom basement apartment, and when I asked them how much I’d have to pay them, they told me that they were doing this for the love of Jesus and that I didn’t have to pay anything at all.
So for 18 months I was living rent free and was able to save my money. I thought I was saving money so I would not have to take out loans for grad school but, in reality, that money I saved is what went into starting up RE+NEW+ALL. And that personal experience, which birthed this larger experience, just further colors or tells the story of how RE+NEW+ALL came to be and what it is all about. That couple from the kindness of their hearts opened up their home to me which allowed me to save the money that I am now reinvesting back into the lives of these women and encouraging others to join me in helping renew those around them. The Lord helped me reinvest in these ladies, so that they can get out and reinvest in the community. So just as that church couple helped renew me and allow me to save my money that I then put into this enterprise to get these ladies jobs, I am now renewing them as well, but the best part is I am not doing it alone. Each time someone purchases a candle they too are investing into the lives of these women and the women to come.
But in summary, getting that awareness out to maintain this and offer full time employment to these ladies has been the hardest part. Now, if you’re asking about something that has been hard in terms of offering help for the ladies….
Yes, we will actually be getting to that as well.
We all know that the most prime success was these strong survivors stepping out of their prior situations and stepping into this reforming situation to get the therapy and counseling they need to operate in this world. But what have been other success stories for some of your survivors? What has their life story become following working at RE+NEW+ALL?
Yes, a couple actually! But my favorite is Casondra. She is so special, as are all of our ladies.
But she is actually the girl who catalyzed the birth of RE+NEW+ALL, by sharing with my mother-in-law [back before RE+NEW+ALL was born] that she could really use some employment. She wrote me a poem that shared her dream of one day opening a bakery. Candle making is a lot like baking, in the method and practice needed to pour it and to measure out the wax and such. Knowing about her dream, I began to look at how I could help her bring it to reality. I noticed a local bakery around and so I went to them and shared Casondra’s story. The bakery allowed her to intern there, and from there, she moved to a part-time position.
Starting in January [of 2020], she got a full time job there and she is doing great. She is one of their top employees. Since I am solely funded on my graduate school savings account and candle sales, I am not a full time work provider, I can only provide part time. So I go out and find partnerships for these girls that can give them that full time employment that they desire and need. I’m happy I was able to do that for her.
That’s beautiful. So where can those who want to find out more about RE+NEW+ALL, keep in touch, and help out locate you on the web?
Any final words?
I just want to say that the importance, the statement that stands behind all of this [the RE+NEW+ALL mission], is that many of our ladies don’t have resumes that people want to look at. So, finding potential partners that are willing to take a chance on these survivors is essential. Their backgrounds and criminal records make it very difficult to do that, but I see these ladies day in, day out. I see their work ethic and growth and commitment as they perform the candle making and talk to me. I want to encourage people to be open minded and aware that they can use their businesses and partnerships to help those out who need a chance.
Those are great parting words, all of us helping out our fellow brethren. That is definitely what we all should be doing. We want to thank our partner RE+NEW+ALL for sharing this story and, furthermore, for continuing to be beacons of light for those who need it. With their individual items that don’t go over $50 (not even the full candle set!), we all can certainly pay it forward too.