Edmonds woman closing fabric shop, continuing poverty fight in Africa

For five years, the Fabric of Life Boutique has helped save West African women from life on the streets. The volunteer-run shop has raised awareness of extreme poverty far from its Edmonds Main Street home. In a few days the shop will close, but its mission won’t end.

“We’re growing,” said Carol Schillios, founder of the nonprofit Fabric of Life Foundation that supports anti-poverty efforts in Mali and other African countries.

Schillios, 61, was the woman on the roof. In 2009, she spent 113 days camped atop her boutique, which sells fair-trade products, including items made by women in Mali. Her rooftop trial — in a tent in 90-degree heat and later in rain and wind — raised $100,000 for the foundation.

That money helped support a training facility Schillios co-founded in Mali’s capital, Bamako. The school teaches traditional arts and other skills, transforming poor women into self-sufficient artisans. Without that help, Schillios said the poorest women and girls are forced into begging or the sex trade.

The Fabric of Life Boutique will be open through Tuesday. In the new year, the foundation will make its own transition. Instead of spending money on overhead to run the store, the foundation will sell online, retail and wholesale, to other fair-trade businesses. And donors will find a new way to help by becoming sponsors of girls and women in the Mali training program.

Through 5:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve, sponsors may sign up in the shop to support students. After that, sponsorship and other information will be available at www.fabricoflife.org.

Linda Denton, the foundation’s associate director, said full-stipend sponsorships are $70 per month, and $35-per-month sponsorships are also offered. The training center outside Bamako runs two classes at a time, with about eight or nine girls in each, she said. “Several have stayed together in an artisan co-op,” Denton said.

Schillios launched the school with Kaaba Coulibaly, her friend and the foundation’s director in Mali. Its first students graduated in 2006.

“The nonprofit retail shop has served its purpose of funding our pilot program in Mali,” Schillios said in announcing the shop’s coming closure. “The whole point of development is to help people help themselves. Now that graduates have market-ready products, they are ready for wholesale.”

The aim is to use money now spent on the shop for direct help to get more women off the streets.

“I wanted desperately to keep the shop open, but it didn’t make financial sense,” said Schillios, who spent her career working with credit unions. “One shop does not generate enough income for growth. And sponsorships allow new girls to get on board.”

A year ago, Schillios’ trip to Mali was complicated by strife in the former French colony. She left for Mali on Dec. 31, 2012, and returned home Jan. 14. At the time, the French were battling Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida in northern Mali, and the U.S. State Department was warning about potential dangers for westerners.

Even so, Schillios plans to return to Mali at the end of January to help prepare artisans for a larger wholesale business.

Cotton is grown in Mali, a country too poor to process it, she said. The fabric is produced in Europe. It is shipped back to Mali, where it is decorated with traditional wax stamping and sewn into products.

“Our goal is very business-oriented,” she said. “Our goal is sustainability — and then get out of the way.”

Schillios appreciates the Edmonds community’s support, and all the hours put in by about 30 volunteers who helped run the shop.

“I learned a ton every day. It’s been a gift for me,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Shop closing

The nonprofit Fabric of Life Boutique, a volunteer-run shop that supports anti-poverty efforts in Mali and other African countries, is closing Tuesday. The Fabric of Life Foundation is switching to a sponsorship program to support artisans in Africa, and to online wholesale to other fair-trade businesses. The shop is at 523 Main St., Edmonds. Sponsorship information available at the shop through Tuesday, or at www.fabricoflife.org

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