Celebrating 50 Years with Stories of MCC Sask at Work

You are at: Home - > MCC-SK 50th -> Ten Thousand Villages

Ten Thousand Villages

Choose to Make a Difference

Ten Thousand Villages began in 1946 when Edna Ruth Byler, an Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker, visited Puerto Rico where volunteers were teaching sewing to help improve the lives of women living in poverty. There was no market for these beautiful handicrafts in the country so the women asked Edna if she could sell them at home.

From this trip, Edna brought several pieces of embroidery back to Pennsylvania to sell to friends and neighbours. The pieces became quite popular and she soon added cross-stitch needlework from Palestinian refugees and hand carved Haitian woodenware to her inventory.

In the early 1970s, the flourishing project moved out of Byler's basement and became Self Help Crafts, an official MCC program.

Eunice Gerbrandt - warehouse manager

Today, thousands of loyal customers and volunteers have helped to build this program into the strong alternative trading organization that, in 1996, became known as Ten Thousand Villages. It is now the oldest and largest Fair Trade organization in North America, selling artisan-crafted personal accessories, home decor and gift items from around the globe.

The philosophy of helping to build a sustainable future is based on the principle that trade should have a conscience. Through Fair Trade, artisans receive respect, dignity and hope from working hard and earning fair value for their work.

Products sold by Ten Thousand Villages come from 29 countries in the developing world. Ten Thousand Villages buys from more than 100 artisan groups which provides work for more than 60,000 individual people. About 70% of the artisans are women. Some artisan groups also seek to employ persons with physical disabilities. Ten Thousand Villages intentionally looks to work with people who are unemployed or underemployed. Products sold by Ten Thousand Villages are often made in small group settings or in homes where artisans also manage household responsibilities or farm work.

Ten Thousand Villages in Saskatchewan

Irma Balzer started Self-Help in Saskatchewan

In 1965, MCC asked Irma Balzer if she would consider launching Self Help in Saskatchewan. Irma's children were grown and she and her husband had just begun looking into the possibility of fostering children. Conflicted about which she should do, Irma approach J. J. Thiessen, a well-respected church leader for advice. He counselled her with these wise words: "Many foster, but few can do this."

Irma accepted MCC's challenge and became the first Saskatchewan Self Help volunteer sales representative. Edna Ruth Byler came to Saskatchewan to help plan the program and get Irma started. For the next five years, Irma travelled across the province selling crafts out of her home and at sales held in churches.

The Self Help program was officially picked up as an MCCS program in 1970. Vera Weber was appointed as director and quickly suggested opening a store area in Saskatoon. In the following years, Self Help continued to grow and flourish throughout the province thanks to the commitment and the passion of many individuals who were willing to freely dedicate their time and energy to the cause.

As the word about Self Help Crafts and its mission spread, more stores opened and sales were held in small and large Saskatchewan communities including Swift Current, Herbert, Rosthern, Meadow Lake, Regina, Prince Albert, and Carrot River. These retail outlets were often housed within MCCS thrift stores known as Gift and Thrift shops. Seasonal sales, especially during the Christmas season, were common.

During this time an important emphasis was placed on education and spreading the word about the conditions and lack of economic opportunities for artisans in developing countries. In 1984, Menno Nickel coordinated 236 classroom visits. Managers and volunteers were and still are encouraged to tell the stories about Fair Trade and communicate the mission of the program with customers.

Regina Ten Thousand Villages - store - celebrating World Fair Trade Day

In 1987 a store was opened in Regina and in 1989 a second outlet was opened in downtown Saskatoon. Word was spreading and customers were excited about supporting artisans through this alternative form of shopping. As the network grew larger, yearly sales surpassed $500,000 in Saskatchewan for the first time in 1988. Jan Janzen, provincial Self Help director, decided to connect the Saskatchewan stores and representatives by writing a newsletter featuring everything from artisan stories to display tips.

Self Help Crafts in Saskatchewan continued to change and grow as it celebrated its 20th anniversary as an MCCS run program in 1990. The former card system of tracking inventory was computerized to increase efficiency and accuracy. Both locations in Saskatoon moved - the north-end store relocated with MCCS to its current address at 600-45th Street West, and the downtown location across the street on 2nd Avenue.

As of 1992, there were 3 independent stores, 7 combination stores (with Thrift shops), and 4 representatives in Saskatchewan. A Self Help Crafts Saskatchewan advisory board was created and began to meet as a permanent board in 1994. Self Help Crafts Canada, located in New Hamburg, Ontario, requested a franchise agreement between the provincial sectors and the national organization. While the Saskatchewan stores were run by their own board, the head office in New Hamburg was available as a helpful resource.

Changes continued to happen in the program when in 1996 Self Help Crafts became Ten Thousand Villages. While some were concerned that the store would no longer be recognized, the change was well received overall. Seasonal stores and the festival sale at the MCCS annual relief sale continued to be popular and many individuals continued to volunteer their time and energy to selling the unique crafts. In 2002, the MCCS board reviewed the Ten Thousand Villages program and determined it would remain a MCCS program with an enhanced global education focus. The Ten Thousand Villages board restructured provincial operations. They decided to rescind the Provincial Director role and became a hands-on management board with new organizational goals.

Sales in Saskatchewan continued to grow and a new store was opened in The Centre at Circle and 8th Mall, bringing about record high sales in Saskatchewan for the next few years. In 2008, an important change occurred when ownership of the 4 Saskatchewan stores was transferred from MCCS to Villages Canada. However, a close connection with MCCS continued. Given their important history and connection in many Saskatchewan communities, MCCS decided to continue to run Ten Thousand Villages festival sales throughout the province for the next 3 years.

2012 brought about the closing of The Centre at Circle and 8th Mall location, and the following year the Regina location was also closed. Today there are two stores in Saskatchewan, both in Saskatoon. These stores organize and run several festival sales both in Saskatoon and throughout the province with the help of many volunteers.

Customers in Saskatchewan still look to Ten Thousand Villages for their Fair Trade gift, home décor, personal accessory, and food item needs. Each purchase helps women and men from around the world fulfill a simple dream - to earn an honest living, provide a home, food and education for their children, and to be gainfully employed in a job that brings dignity and joy.

Here is a personal story from Ten Thousand Villages around the world.

Back to MCCS's 50th Anniversary - index Or; Jan: IVEP | Feb: Thrift Shop Movement | Mar: Canadian Foodgrains Bank| Apr: Ten Thousand Villages | May: Restorative Justice | June: Relief Sale | July: Refugee Assistance | Aug: Aboriginal Neighbours (Historical overview) | Sept: Governance | Oct: Music Gala

[last updated - Dec/23/2021]
Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

Room 900 - 110 La Ronge Road,
Saskatoon, SK, S7K 7H8
Archive Hours: Monday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. Wednesday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. & by appointment on Wed. evening.