It all started several years ago on a road trip to the Wild Coast, South Africa. Shayleen Dwyer wanted to spend time with her mother and, following the advice of a friend; Shayleen and her mother chose to spend 10 days at the Bulungula Lodge.
Bulungula is an eco-friendly backpackers lodge situated on the western coast of South Africa. The Lodge works in tandem with the people of Nqileni village to create a harmonious experience for the eco-traveler that includes highlighting village life in a spectacular natural setting. Nqileni is in one of the most impoverished areas in South Africa where ¼ of the people are HIV positive; there are few roads and no running water or electricity. Part of Bulungula’s mission is to enable the people of Nqileni to start community-owned businesses that create jobs and income for the local families. Matador travel writes, “the community is so involved within the lodge, a feeling of belonging, sharing and respect has been established with the travellers who visit”.
Shayleen, who has a history of small business development, noticed that the Lodge lacked a gift shop. She recognized that the international travellers who visited Bulungula would like to take home a memento from their time visiting the Wild Coast. She also understood this would be an opportunity for the people of Nqileni to develop an outlet for local crafts. Shayleen offered to produce a business plan and raise capital to start a “shop”.
“I have always been a craft person”, explained Shayleen.
“Just before visiting Bulungula, I closed my store in New York City. I was freelancing in the fashion industry and keeping my options open for the next opportunity”, she continued.
“I knew that a store would work in Bulungula. So at the end of my vacation, I returned to New York where I started to work on a plan. I raised money for the project from my family and friends.”
A year later, Shayleen returned to Bulungula to start work. “I figured that teaching the locals a skill would be more beneficial than donating money or goods. So I put out a call to teach felting and sewing. A day later a dozen women and one man showed up and we started creating clothing and bags using the local hand-powered sewing machines and the locally produced traditional shwe shwe fabric. The tourists started buying and ordering that same day", Shayleen recalled. Success!
Next they tackled felting - felt is the oldest form of fabric. Felting is the process by which raw wool (such as sheep’s wool or alpaca wool) fibers are manually interlocked and shrunk to form a durable piece of nonwoven material.
All that's needed for the process is water and soap - perfect for an off-the-grid area. Several of the young women took to the process quite naturally and within a couple of days were sculpting various scarfs, hats and purses for the gift shop.
In just 3 weeks, Shayleen and the local crafts people created a viable craft business. 3 years down the line the project has grown and now supports 10 families.
Working with the Bulungula Lodge helped Shayleen meet another of her personal goals. “My parents and my youngest brother live in South Africa and I wanted to be able to spend more time with them. Working with Bulungula gives me something rewarding to do while I am there”, said Shayleen. "They've also all spent time with me down at the lodge, an unexpected gift - it's a wonderful place".
“My whole life has moved in an organic and instinctual way. I am more of a wing-it kind of person. I prefer waiting for opportunities, feelings or needs within me to arise, rather than chasing down an idea. It takes a bit of patience - sometimes things take time to come together. But at least it feels right when it does manifest."
But was her willingness to take a risk on something new just the way she is or is it learned behavior? Without pausing, Shayleen says, “Considering my siblings all seem to be the same way, I'd say learned behavior. My father enjoyed a fulfilling and interesting career as a diplomat with only a high school education. My mother is super creative, adventurous and brave. From them I learned that 'following your bliss' is a good way to ensure you'll enjoy your work. And making time for travel and adventure keeps the feeling of freedom alive".
Shayleen continues to travel periodically to the Wild Coast to work with the crafters at the Lodge and returns regularly to the States to sell the crafts created at Bulungula. She has been inspired to develop her own line of felted crafts and is working with the shop at Bulungula to expand their line on the Internet. She is expecting to soon be able to phase out her freelancing and work full time on both these projects.
So how did Shayleen end up helping a community in South Africa, developing a new craft line and spending more time with her family? She did it by being open to new experiences and new opportunities while letting go of those situations that no longer worked for her. She was able to craft her own life by clearly defining her values and living them. As we navigate a changing world economic environment and a limited US job market, it would serve us well to remember that opportunities are right before us, we just need to be willing to take a chance.