Duxbury shop owner Jacqueline O’Toole gives back by partnering with artisans in Nicaragua.By Maura K. Sullivan | Photography by Rosemary Tufankjian
Dirt roads curve through a brilliant green forest in a rural region of western Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America. These winding roads lead to the heart of Chacraseca, a town of 8,000 people, where a small cluster of run-down buildings forms the “downtown” area. There’s a church, a store, several small school buildings and not much else. But amongst the worn buildings is a brand new structure with happy yellow walls and a bright blue roof: the Richard Streb Memorial Library.
The 4,000-square-foot, solar-powered library opened in June of 2014, in a community desperately in need of a community center and internet cafe. Though there are more than 3,500 miles between Chacraseca and the South Shore, the existence of this library can be traced directly to a small cultural gift shop in Duxbury called ONE and its inspired owner, Jacqueline O’Toole.
O’Toole opened ONE in 2010 with a mission of giving back to the community. The products she sells are made by South Shore artisans, fair trade companies and other small-business crafters. A portion of her proceeds goes directly back to the artisans who create the products. A chance meeting with Michael Cipoletti of FNE International led to a partnership that funded the library construction.
FNE International, which stands for Facilitate, Network and Empower, is a nonprofit organization that cultivates education and sustainable development projects in Nicaragua and Peru. Cipoletti is the group’s founder and executive director. In addition to coordinating projects in Nicaragua and Peru, he also arranges for groups of students and volunteers to build homes and assist in both countries. Cipoletti met O’Toole’s daughter, Katherine, through one such trip to Nicaragua run by his alma mater, Stonehill College.
Katherine knew that she needed to introduce Cipoletti to her mother, who immediately wanted to get involved with FNE International. Jacqueline made her first trip to Nicaragua in 2011 and was so overwhelmed by the extreme poverty in the country that she resolved to find a way to help.
“Mike knew that I had the store, so he introduced me to a few different women and I bought products from them,” says O’Toole. “When he told me that the money would feed their families for a month, I realized that this was where I could help.”
When O’Toole returned to the South Shore, she started selling the artisans’ work at ONE and also designated all store tips as donations to the library project. Other donors from Duxbury and surrounding towns supported the library project by purchasing items from the store, making donations and attending a fundraiser hosted by O’Toole.
“Lots of folks on the South Shore have contributed to the dream of the Richard Streb Memorial Library,” says Cipoletti. “From the outset, Jacqueline and ONE have supported the project and raised the initial dollars to get the project under way.”
While donations funded the construction and supplies for the library, the building itself was built entirely by people from Chacraseca. “Nothing is given to them; they take ownership in everything,” explains O’Toole.
With its location in the central area of Chacraseca, the library has become the heart of the community. Its impressive collection of books draws visitors from the surrounding area and even the nearby city of Leon. FNE International funds a scholarship program for students from Chacraseca to attend the local university, and now they can study and do research at the library.
The library project was just a first step for O’Toole and her friends in Nicaragua. Since that first visit, she has expanded her work in the country to include classes in sewing, design and small business skills.
O’Toole, who has a background in interior design, travels to Nicaragua every six weeks and stays for two weeks at a time, visiting the people who she says have become like family. One of her projects is a sewing co-op in Chacraseca, where two women named Juana Ojeda and Maria Adilia Martinez make handbags from recycled potato chip bags, coffee sacks and leather. They have even opened a small shop in the center of town, near the library, and use this income to support their children and extended families.
“We are proud to work with ONE and have learned a lot,” Ojeda and Adilia Martinez said by email. “We can improve our homes and we have money so we are able to pay bills and debts. We are very proud and the work is a great benefit to our community.”
O’Toole brought four sewing machines down with her on one trip, and she now spends much of her visits working with the women on design and sewing skills. She also works with a group of middle school-aged boys who make bracelets, a husband and wife who make pottery and a war veteran who makes bracelets.
A favorite part of her trips to Nicaragua has been designing and making jewelry with Pamela Chaser and Javier Hernandez, a married couple who live in the city of Masaya. The artisans make one-of-a-kind pieces out of copper, sterling silver, string and stones that are mined in Nicaragua. Among other things, they make colorful string bracelets with “Duxbury” inscribed on a sterling silver plate, which have become popular with South Shore customers.
Back at ONE, O’Toole, donning several handcrafted jewelry designs on her wrists and neck, points out the bracelets, bags and pottery on display in her shop and enthusiastically shares photos from her last trip. She stows her laptop in a case made by another one of her artisans and her purse is a leather bag from Nicaragua, with one of the potato chip bags inside for extra storage.
O’Toole’s store mission statement proclaims that “ONE gift, ONE person, ONE place CAN make a difference” and her commitment to the artisans of Nicaragua certainly proves this sentiment to be true.
According to Cipoletti, many families in Nicaragua are living on only two or three dollars a day. But the artisans whose work is sold at ONE have been able to double and sometimes triple their income.
“Working with ONE gives them another source of income, as well as access and opportunity to develop small-business skills,” says Cipoletti. “Jacqueline is creating opportunity for artisans that are interested in developing their craft.”
Currently, O’Toole works with artisans from 20 families in Nicaragua. Each time she travels to Chacraseca, there are more people lined up to see her, hoping to sell their crafts and learn in her classes. For some, it’s their only source of income.
“Pamela and I have worked with Jacqueline for 3 years now and in that time our business has grown so much,” says Hernandez, the jewelry maker.
“Jacqueline opened a new door that allows us to work throughout the year. It is very easy to work with Jacqueline because there is a connection between her ideas and our hands.”
In addition to selling the artisans’ work at ONE in Duxbury, O’Toole is helping to bring the handmade products to a much wider audience through her label Sea el Cambio (“Be the Change”). There are currently six other retail locations in New England offering Sea el Cambio products, and O’Toole expects this number to grow. In addition to the money that the artisans earn, a portion of the profits goes directly back to FNE International.
O’Toole is constantly reminded of the importance of her efforts, thanks to a woven bracelet she received on her first trip to Nicaragua. “I haven’t taken the bracelet off since I got it,” she says. “It reminds me that one person can make a difference. You just have to be open to it and act on it.”