Women’s Empowerment Through Art: Zanmi Dolls Project
Zanmi means friend in Haitian Creole.
Empowering women and forming lasting friendships is exactly what the Zanmi Dolls Project is all about, founded by Natalie Soloway, after she visited Haiti just after the earthquake in 2010.
As a former art teacher who studied at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Natalie knew that she wanted to do something different – something unique that would make a lasting impact and empower women in Haiti and combine her love for the arts.
Natalie was introduced to Project Medishare for Haiti through a friend, and Natalie proposed her idea: she wanted to help the women of Haiti earn a living by using their creativity and talents.
In the wake of the earthquake, 15 of the most needy women in the Lahoye community of Haiti, located in a very rural part of the Central Plateau, were trained and taught by Natalie to make dolls and baskets from recycled t-shirts. Natalie then took those handcrafted items back to California and sold them at craft sales and to friends. The women of Haiti received 100 percent from the sales of the items they made.
“The ladies are paid for their handcrafts and for the first time in their lives, they were able to earn an income,” Natalie said.
The impact this project has made on the lives of these women is huge. Many women, who are mostly mothers and grandmothers, are now earning a living for the first time in their lives, and they are having fun while they get together to make their handmade crafts. Natalie said they laugh and talk while making their crafts together. “Their lives have changed. It’s so heartwarming to see these women have this power. They have fun doing something they love.” Natalie said.
Natalie cherishes the friendship she has made with the women too. She does not speak Creole but said that has never limited their relationship. A few years ago, Natalie recalls a woman named Nani who seemed unhappy when she first got involved with the project. Nani’s only child had recently passed away. Her son had financially supported his mother and now she was left alone. Nani joined the group and started making crafts and earning her own money for the first time in her life. “Now she is all smiles,” Natalie said, adding “her anxiety has been taken away.”
When the group first formed, Natalie said that only a few of the women could write their own names on the handcrafts they made. Writing their name on the items they made was important, so Natalie can keep track of everyone’s sales. With Natalie’s help, all the women have learned how to write their names.
The reason Natalie said why the Zanmi Dolls Project is so important is because of the women. “Their heart, their attitudes about life, their positive energy,” she said are the reason she loves this project. There are now 45 women in the program. Natalie hopes the program continues to grow and grow.
“The group has tripled in size and the women meet once a month with the help of Project Medishare who collects the ladies handcrafts and manages the payments to the women,” Natalie said.
Natalie hosts several fundraising events in the Southern California area where she sells handcrafted items. She even has churches and schools involved and they help collect recycled items needed for the crafts, such as the t-shirts and buttons.
Natalie travels to Haiti once or twice a year to hold the workshops to train the women in the program. Natalie wants to program to continue to grow. She would like to sell the items online eventually. And one day she said she would like to see the women of Haiti sell their items near the cruise ports.
In addition to Natalie having the vision to start such an amazing project, she also is a monthly donor to Project Medishare for Haiti. We are blessed to have this project and all our monthly donors – you are all special “zanmis” to us!