Akron, a town of about 4,000, lies nestled among the farmlands of Lancaster County. Hills wash over a few of its public parks. At one of them, Broad Street Park, there’s a small roller hockey rink. Parents watch their charges gad about from a nearby pavilion.
Like many American towns, Akron is adorned with modesty.
Yet its reach, thanks to one of its daughters, stretches across several other small towns in distant, and often starkly different, places.
Edna Ruth Byler, a Mennonite who lived in the town in the 1940s, is considered the founder of Ten Thousand Villages, a now-national network of retail stores specializing in fair-trade products. On a trip to Puerto Rico in 1946, she met women who, like her, were embroiderers, and purchased their handiwork to bring home. Back in Pennsylvania, she found there was a market for the products.
Quickly, it became apparent one village wouldn’t suffice.
Run by the Mennonite Church, the network of stores now has locations across the United States and Canada. According to the organization, its efforts reach 20,000 makers in 30 developing countries.
For Joel Weidner, it’s a familiar story. A lifelong Mennonite, he had grown accustomed to perusing the church’s annual festival sales and helping with them, whatever the town or place. After he retired from Penn State last July, he wanted to bring Ten Thousand Villages to one in particular: State College.
“This was going to be one of my projects to take on and get people interested,” he said.
So far, so good. He’s marshaled support from the organization besides the local community. A Facebook group, an online interest survey and the beginnings of a board of directors have followed.
On Monday, representatives from Ten Thousand Villages spoke at an initial interest meeting in town, relaying the steps in getting a brick-and-mortar store started and its attendant challenges. Raising capital — about $100,000 is needed, the representatives said — remains the biggest hurdle.
“What specifically piqued our interest in State College was we have a unique model where we work with groups in cities who are interested in our mission and who have already gotten some momentum going,” said Sam Bills, a board development specialist with Ten Thousand Villages who spoke at the meeting. “And so Joel, who we are working with there, he just has a ton of energy and enthusiasm. We’re really just getting behind a local effort to help them take it to the next level.”
That level will be difficult to reach. Jim Gittings, a sales director for Ten Thousand Villages, told the group the Mennonite Central Committee may offer matching funds up to $50,000 for new stores over the next few years. But typically, accruing enough to meet the first “fundable” benchmark can take longer than a year for startups, according to seed-funding organization Y Combinator. For a nonprofit, which Weidner says the group hopes to become, that timeline can be stretched further depending on the project’s scale.
Some statistics are on their side, however. Giving USA, an annual report on philanthropy, found giving toward efforts involving international affairs grew 17.4 percent from 2014 to 2015 and donations to religious organizations eclipsed $110 billion, an uptick of 2.6 percent.
“Our meeting in State College is specifically planned because of the interest there,” Bills said. “So it’s not like we’re not shopping around for a location. There’s energy there, and we’re really responding to that.”
Weidner, 58, admits the idea is just starting out.
Besides funding, the group needs to find space. Weidner said his dream would be to have the store downtown, potentially next to a coffee shop. He foresees it as a meeting place for students, community groups and anyone else interested in supporting fairly traded, handmade goods.
“We don’t want this to be just a University Mennonite Church project,” he said. “We want this to be a joint-community project.”
To save costs, their effort may rely heavily on volunteers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most are focusing their efforts on fundraising when giving their time. Weidner said the potential store, while it will employ a small staff, will depend on volunteers during the holiday season when sales pick up.
Molly Kunkel, a member of UMC, ran the church’s annual festival sale for about four years. She’s been a customer for as long as she can remember.
“There’s really nothing like that here,” she said. “I like the stuff they sell and the way it’s also doing good around the world.”
Kunkel has purchased baskets, pictures and utensils — all crafted by artisans from around the world — in the stores. Learning about where the goods are made is half the fun, she said.
It’s a message that has resonated with others. Deborah Smith, a retired Penn State education professor, has used South American flutes and African drums to teach lessons at the elementary school level. The items, she said, check several boxes: providing benefits to the maker, the buyer and, in her case, the kids she used to teach.
“I think it’s good for anybody who walks into the store to know about that and know that they’re contributing to something really good,” she said. “I think that’s why I’m such a fan in that it serves multiple purposes.”
For Weidner, the “fun” is just beginning. Becoming a true nonprofit and organizing a board are the next steps. Then there’s the part of raising money.
But in a college town like this one, he said, the store is a perfect fit — and worth the investment. Like Byler before him, he believes there’s a market.
“I’m always the optimist as far as raising money and everything,” he said. “Could we bring a store here by next fall? That’s aggressive, but it’s a target for sure.”