From her cozy office in a tiny religious bookstore near Downtown Memphis, Elizabeth Wirls dreams about changing the world.
Or at least a small corner of it, starting with a couple neighborhoods where need is great and opportunities few.
And from there, who knows? Because as Wirls believes, the possibilities are endless.
Wirls, who manages the Episcopal Bookshop at 672 Poplar next door to St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, is coordinating a new social entrepreneurship startup called Creative Community that's designed to connect the arts and business communities with marginalized citizens.
To hear Wirls describe it, the mission is to create a sustainable, local, fair-trade network that will provide jobs and dignity to people living in poverty. It's a vision of entrepreneurship, she added, that's more about people than profits.
"It's a leap of faith, but we believe that we can harness the talents and collaborative efforts of the arts and business sectors to develop a network to make a difference in our community," Wirls said. "We can do this, there's no doubt about that. We understand that it's a big challenge, but we believe this is a way to shine a positive light on Memphis and it's something that people can really support."
Working in conjunction with June Averyt, director of the Outreach, Housing & Community organization, local artist Rebecca Chappell and Caritas Village founder Onie Johns, Wirls developed the project to transform recyclable materials -- including the plastic bags used to wrap copies of The Commercial Appeal -- into quality handmade goods. Other items may include old shirts, potato chip bags and discarded medicine bottles.
One example is a boutonniere created from the bags, which will be crafted by Create Community participants, and what Wirls hopes will be sold at area businesses and by local churches and organizations as fundraising projects.
Wirls expects initial startup costs to run about $50,000, which will be used to provide small stipends for a couple dozen workers to produce the crafts. Although that amount -- around $2,000 per worker -- isn't going to lift anyone out of poverty, she hopes the supplementary income will lead to a cycle of earning and purpose for those with limited options.
Starting off small, Create Community is being established as a nonprofit organization and at first will concentrate engaging participants from neighborhoods near St. Mary's and in the Binghamton community.
"Part of the motivation is to work with our homeless population and help integrate them back into the community and move their lives to a different level," Averyt said. "People want to have something to do that's meaningful and creative. This is a small start that we believe can make a big difference."
To assist with the creative component, Wirls is reaching out to the artistic community and seeking concepts for products crafted from recyclable materials. A design competition will be launched in the coming weeks, with five winners being awarded $300 each for their ideas.
And plastic-bag-boutonnieres aside, the ultimate goal, Wirls said, is to create an eco-friendly, ecumenical business project that resonates throughout the community.
"This isn't about people creating pleasant little crafts that benevolent customers buy just to be nice," Wirls said. "It's about creating quality items that people will actually want to purchase and providing opportunities for people who may feel like they have none. The whole point is to get everyone involved and make this work."
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