Michelle Kime

 

michelleI can still clearly see her face. She was a beautiful little girl with shining eyes, a wide toothy smile, and two uneven pigtails. She wore a torn and dirty pink shirt that was too big for her petite frame and a flowered skirt with a ragged hem. She was sitting among a group of children on the floor of a community “building”—an open-air structure consisting of a raised wooden platform with a palm-thatched roof. I handed her a lollipop, and she clasped her hands around its stick, bowing a bit to express her thanks. The translator present then pointed out the man-made pond across the road, explaining that this girl’s village did not have a well and that during the dry season, when the pond was empty, the village didn’t have any source of clean water.

My heart sank.

My understanding of the world was rapidly changing. I had been looking into the eyes of a girl who, for no fault of her own, had a high chance of contracting a water-born disease, of stumbling on a landmine, or of being bitten by a poisonous snake as she crossed fields of tall grass to fetch water. But this bright-eyed, young girl deserved a fighting chance, an option, opportunity, hope.

At sunrise a few days later, I sat at the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia thinking over all my eyes had seen, my ears had heard, and my heart had felt the day I gave the girl a lollipop. With knowledge comes responsibility, and I had a lot of new knowledge to process. I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people like her. I wasn’t sure what helping marginalized people would look like or how opportunities to serve would unfold, but I knew that my life could not, should not, and would not be the same again.

That was my first trip to Cambodia. A woman who is now a good friend of mine, Aiyana Ehrman, introduced me to the opportunity to go there. I met this purpose-driven woman because our husbands, Joel and Jim, were friends. They worked together and sometimes traveled together to India and Nepal. One day, after Joel and Jim’s latest trip to Nepal, I invited the Ehrmans for dinner. Aiyana talked about how she had traveled to Cambodia in 2006 and explained that she felt drawn to do something about the hurting people she had seen in that country. She informed me that she was returning to Cambodia in just ten weeks and, not wanting to travel alone, asked whether I would accompany her. I said “yes” without hesitation. It was only after the Ehrmans closed the door to head home that I made a beeline for the globe in the living room to look up the destination of my next trip.

After Aiyana and I took that first trip together in 2008, we decided to take action in the fight for justice and seek to make a difference in the lives of the people we’d encountered in Cambodia. We began traveling to Cambodia twice a year. During each trip we stayed in regular contact with our partner organization there to see how we might work together. Eventually we began taking teams of people on exposure trips to give them the opportunity to learn about and see people living in poverty. During those trips we helped drill eight wells and implement three sanitation projects. We were able to raise funds for humanitarian projects, such as HIV+ and School-on-the-Mat projects.

During these trips we began helping out with the sewing projects that our partner organization had recently launched. These sewing projects were a beautiful and practical way to provide financial and career opportunities to Cambodians trained in the art of sewing. Five years ago, in 2008, we commissioned 45 sewn bags of two varieties, in hopes that they would successfully be sold. The bags sold quickly, so we gradually provided additional patterns and larger quantities to our product inventory. Over time we became very familiar with the open markets of Phnom Penh, where we purchased all the fabric, zippers, and buttons the seamstresses needed. Sourcing the needed fabrics and accessories in country benefited Cambodian individuals and families.

What began as a sewing project through a nonprofit eventually turned into a business. Aiyana and I agreed that the sewing project was the most sustainable of all our endeavors, and we believed it would offer the most stable opportunities to empower our Cambodian partners. This conclusion led us to restructure our nonprofit project to a business: Imagine Goods.

What exactly is Imagine Goods? It is a business with the ultimate goal of providing opportunities for change to the vulnerable and marginalized people of Cambodia, many of whom are recovering from sex trafficking. The business sells a full line of products that are made by these marginalized people. The products include clothing, home goods, and accessories. All the fabrics needed for the products are sourced from open markets in Cambodia in order to sustain the local economy.

Aiyana Ehrman and I (Michelle Kime) are the founders of Imagine Goods. We are wives, mothers, and friends brought together by our passion for justice. You might call us accidental entrepreneurs since we never intended to start a business. Aiyana and I do things differently than some businesses. We focus on people much more than on the bottom line, and our goal is to always be aware of and provide for the entire chain of people involved in the creation of our products. Is each worker earning a living wage, at least enough to meet their basic needs? Is each worker being empowered? Imagine Goods is considered a sustainable supply company because we, the founders, believe that when a product is purchased, the money paid for the item should sustain each person connected to it with a living wage.