To the naked eye, Krochet Kids international might look like any other Orange County-based apparel brand. Their nonprofit status, even, risks getting lost in the local crowd that includes the likes of Toms Shoes and Invisible Children. What does set it apart from the others, however, is its unique and humble beginnings.
As Krochet Kids international directly benefits over 500 Northern Ugandans through its unique microfinancing program, it is almost impossible to believe that this fast-growing nonprofit was founded just four years ago by a group of college guys who had crocheted their way to fame in small town Spokane, Washington.
While other students at Mt. Spokane High School were busy studying for exams, attending parties and working part-time jobs, Kohl Crecelius, Stewart Ramsey and Travis Hartanov were crocheting. That’s not to say that “the Krochet Kids,” as a local newscaster deemed them, were excluded from the normal social scene.
Rather, they also spent much of their time socializing, snowboarding and competing with the rest of their cross-country team. They even used the money that they earned from the sale of their beanies and scarves to buy their sweethearts the “perfect” prom — skating rink and hot air balloon ride included.
For Kohl, Travis and Stewart, who learned their craft from Kohl’s older brother Parc, crochet was never about the end product, but of the process of creating something out of nothing; of making something powerful out of something hopeless.
After graduating and moving away to college — Kohl to The University of Washington and Travis and Stewart to Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California — the guys put down their crochet hooks and began to focus on their studies, quietly hoping to someday use their craft to do good in the world. In the Summer of 2006, Stewart took a trip with other students of Vanguard’s International Business program to Gulu, Uganda where he witnessed first-hand the devastation that a 20-year civil war had had on the nation’s land and people.
Refugees in their own country, generations of Ugandans had been born, lived and died in government-issued camps that had originally been built to protect the people from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that was ransacking the nation.
Multiple foreign aid programs were at work in these impoverished villages, providing the people with the food, water and medicine necessary to their survival. The problem with this well-accepted system, as Stewart quickly learned, was that the resources were only as available as the funding behind them.
If a program ran out of money or determined a different cause to be more important, the people of Uganda would suddenly be without food, water or vital medication. Not only were the business students aware of this flaw, so were the people of Uganda. Exhausted by their existence of dependency and disappointment, the people of Uganda were ready to regain control of their lives and to work.
Although heartbroken by the distress he discovered in Northern Uganda, Stewart returned to the U.S. encouraged with the opportunities for growth and change in the war-torn nation. Rather than continue to provide the people with finite resources, Stewart, Kohl and Travis could provide them with a skill and the necessary materials to make their craft profitable. They would empower the people of Uganda to rise above poverty using the art of crochet.
With the help of friends and family, the Krochet Kids were able to raise the money and create international relationships necessary to return to Uganda and teach a small group of women how to crochet. Hand-selected by local governing bodies based on their financial or medical need and willingness to work, these women would be provided with yarn, hooks and a fair salary in order to sustain their craft and pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Almost immediately, people in the States began to buy the products and tell the story of these women.
Krochet Kids international’s program is simple: the women in Northern Uganda are taught to crochet and are employed to create hats, scarves and laptop cases. The real tear-jerker? On the label of each crocheted item is the signature of the woman who created it. Buyers are encouraged to go online and find their lady, read her story and send her a note of thanks.
In exchange for the work that they do, these women receive a fair and relevant salary (about equal to that of a full-time teacher in Uganda) and courses on financial responsibility and personal safety. Each woman works approximately 25 hours a week as a crocheter, tailor or hut leader within the protected walls of the KKU (Krochet Kids Uganda) compound.
Supervising the work done in Uganda is a team of Americans and Ugandans, including two recent college graduates who were hired as quality control interns. Their blogs and letters home recall the stories, songs, prayers and laughter that can be heard echoing through and between the traditional huts as the women create beautiful products and encourage one another to continue to grow and pursue their dreams.
Kohl, Stewart and Travis continue to hold down the fort state-side from their headquarters in Costa Mesa. In addition to the original “Krochet Kids,” the KKi family has grown to include old classmates, fellow entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, skateboarders and interns who work tirelessly to spread the story of hope for Uganda. All products are designed in-shop and have seen a recent shift toward more sustainable materials such as bamboo and organic cotton.
Although the company is growing quickly, the founders remain humble and consistently express their gratitude to those who guided and supported them early on and to buyers who enable KKi to continue to grow and help more women through their purchases.
Thanks to meticulous planning and careful spending (the guys joke that the women in Uganda have always made more money doing crochet than they have as entrepreneurs), Krochet Kids’ program has become almost completely self-sustaining, meaning that a large portion of each sale can go directly back to the women and into initiatives to identify and train more beneficiaries.
In addition to the work that they do at the KKU compound, many of these women are returning to school or running their own businesses in order to provide their families and friends with additional income and to better prepare for the future. By providing these women with the skills and resources they need to pull themselves out of poverty and to pursue their dreams, Krochet Kids international has helped lay the building blocks for a sustainable new Ugandan economy.
Today, just four years after gaining its nonprofit status in 2007, Krochet Kids international employs well over 100 women in Northern Uganda as crocheters, seamstresses and hut leaders who are crafting their way out of poverty and into hope.
Krochet Kids’ beanies, laptop cases and bamboo scarves are available at most Nordstroms and krochetkids.org