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El Morro students provide goats to Congo

El Morro students provide goats to Congo
Peace Exchange founder Katie Bond, back row center, sits with Mary Blanton's kindergarden class at El Morro Elementary School after raising funds for three goats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. Lauren King, upper left, was also instrumental in the effort. (Don Leach / Coastline Pilot)

Whether they knew it or not, Lauren King and Katie Bond's recent conversation at the Laguna Beach farmers market sparked a fundraising drive among a group of El Morro Elementary students to help some of the world's poorest people.

Bond, who founded the Peace Exchange — a Laguna Beach nonprofit that partners with organizations in developing countries to create sustainable jobs for women — three years ago, described the needs of seamstresses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The organization supports women by providing chickens, goats and gardening kits in a country that endured civil war and human rights abuses.

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El Morro teacher Mary Blanton had just finished taking her kindergarten students through a unit about farming.

King, who has a child in the school, noted that a fundraiser to purchase goats for Congolese families would be an ideal tie-in.

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"For the family in the Congo, a goat is a symbol of wealth and provides them with the opportunity to get milk, make cheese, teaches animal husbandry and gives them more financial security," King said.

And so a collaboration between El Morro students and the Peace Exchange was born.

El Morro Elementary parent Lauren King, with son Shore, worked with the Laguna Beach nonprofit Peace Exchange to purchase three goats to help families in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
El Morro Elementary parent Lauren King, with son Shore, worked with the Laguna Beach nonprofit Peace Exchange to purchase three goats to help families in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Don Leach / Coastline Pilot)

Each student in Blanton's class was asked to raise $5 to reach an initial goal of $75 — enough to purchase two goats. But students exceeded that benchmark, gathering $105 through yard work and other chores done at home to buy three goats.

The goats were delivered to the South Kivu province last week.

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"I can't thank King and Blanton enough for creating such compassionate little young global citizens," Bond said in a news release.

For Bond, the students' feat is the latest testament to the work the exchange is doing.

Exchange staff members teach the women in the Congo how to sew and then pay them fair wages for the products they make, including yoga bags, aprons and napkins. The organization operates on the fair-trade model, which equips producers to create sustainable businesses with safe work conditions.

Women in the country's Kivu region make less than $1 a day, but the exchange offers as much as six times that amount to seamstresses. With the money, families can afford to send their children to school.

Fundraising generates most of the money the exchange uses to pay seamstresses, whose products are then sold to consumers worldwide through the organization's website or at pop-up events.

"We try to be the gateway, the open door to get products into the mainstream," Bond said in a follow-up interview. "Otherwise, no one [in the Congo] would buy the beautiful dress they made because they can't afford it."

Bond works with a team of 40 employees in the Congo, including Datcha Byangoy, the on-site director who oversees seamstresses at two sewing centers. Byangoy buys the fabric and handles all shipping.

Bond first heard about fair trade in college.

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She researched the concept and eventually went to work for Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit that strives to improve the livelihoods of tens of thousands of disadvantaged artisans in 38 countries, according to a description on the organization's website.

In 2013, while helping at a Ten Thousand Villages fundraiser, Bond listened to a non-governmental organization representative speak about the Congo, and the story grabbed her attention.

"I wish fair trade was taught in the public schools," Bond, who also teaches yoga, said. "It addresses issues of global poverty and education. When you go to countries with extreme poverty, most of the countries don't have public school infrastructure. All the kids who would love to go to school can't afford it. It's just an epidemic cycle."

The exchange currently works alongside ABFEK, an NGO working in the Congo.

Blanton, King and Bond are creating a pen pal exchange program between Blanton's class and the children of the exchange seamstresses to create a unique opportunity for students to learn from one another's cultures.

The exchange's largest annual fundraiser, the Fair Trade Fashion Show, will be held July 16 in Los Angeles. For information about the event and other ways to become involved with the exchange, visit thepeaceexchange.com.

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