Hand-made, Fair Trade
Before she came to Lethbridge, Janelle Gerestein had no interest in travelling. Two separate trips to Bolivia have since changed her mind.
Gerestein, who is originally from Brooks, graduated with a bachelor of management degree from the University of Lethbridge in 2008. She decided to put her degree to use by helping people in the underdeveloped South American country, where the poverty level hovers around 60 per cent.
“When I started at the U of L, I thought I didn’t want to leave Lethbridge; I love it here, I’m a southern Alberta girl,” she says. “I couldn’t see myself travelling at all. But then once you go, you get a bug. It’s an experience.”
Her first Bolivian journey began in September 2008, following a one-month training period in Ottawa volunteering with Transfair Canada through a placement by Canadian Crossroads International. The placement was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency’s International Youth Internship Program.
“I was working as a fair trade marketing specialist for a micro-credit, non-profit organization doing market research. They wanted to do a pilot project to finance Bolivian agricultural producers to become fair-trade certified and find importers in Canada,” Gerestein explained.
“It’s the exchange of know-how and capacity building that are huge themes. So we’re not just going in there and telling people how to do things; it’s sharing skills.”
The marketing major returned to Canada in February 2009 after five months in Bolivia. She then spent time volunteering at Medicine Hat College’s Brooks campus, tutoring students in English as a second language.
Gerestein returned to Bolivia in November, this time with the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI), a Montreal-based organization, and their Uniterra initiative – the leading Canadian international volunteer program with partners in 13 countries.
“This time I’m going to be working with a network of artisan groups. There are six organizations in this network and they include more than 4,000 Bolivian artisans and producers of traditional handicrafts,” Gerestein said about her year-long stay.
“You hear the story behind each product and that the artisan is getting a fair price; they’re able to support their family and have medical care and food. The goal is to find at least two Canadian importers, improve the organization’s web presence and create an online catalogue besides other initiatives.”
Gerestein, who speaks some Spanish and wants to learn Portuguese and French, said she doesn’t expect to make a permanent move to Bolivia, but would perhaps consider going for a couple of months every year.
“There’s still a ton of development work to be done, but I have different career ideas in mind, too. I like to keep my options open and explore.”
She is also quick to credit the U of L’s program as a key contributor to her recent experiences, saying her participation in the Integrated Management Experience from 2006-07 was a key factor in her success.
“I started learning about fair trade and social responsibility. I wouldn’t even really have known about these opportunities if it wasn’t for Dan Kazakoff’s class in applied consulting, in which I participated in a marketing project for Ten Thousand Villages. I thought ‘I want to go and make a difference and use the marketing background,’” Gerestein says, adding it’s a great opportunity “even just to share that.”
“A lot of people don’t even have access to schooling, or at least post-secondary education. I just wanted to use my degree for helping people. I think it’s really good to think about other people and not just ourselves. I feel so blessed to be from Canada and to be able to have gone to a great university.”