THAILAND - Ten months have passed since former Garden resident Brittany Fox shared details of her humanitarian mission with Upper Peninsula residents. Since that time, Fox, her partners and employees have made incredible strides with the Thailand-based social enterprise, Thai Song Fair Trade.
What began as a worldwide philanthropic tour following high school, led to a significant life change for this young woman hailing from a town of just more than 200 people.
After finishing various missions in places like Thailand, Africa and India, Fox earned a degree in International Relations in August 2009 from Michigan State University. She learned the Thai language and went straight to Thailand, the country she most identified with on her travels.
A group of Thai women and children pose with an ice cream cake while celebrating their first-year anniversary of Thai Song Fair Trade, a Thailand-based social enterprise. (courtesy photo)
Using an idea planted by her brother, Brandon, Fox saw an opportunity to help the impoverished women she had encountered during her first trip to Thailand through the production of handbags made of recycled materials.
With the assistance of her friend and Thailand resident Panida Ponkapin (Tukta), Fox began Thai Song. The company name, Thai for 'freedom' and 'emit', doubles as the mission its leaders embrace - emitting hope and freedom for the numerous women who would otherwise be financially restrained by their gender and family obligations.
Since January, when she first sat down with the Daily Press, Fox and the company have been working to empower the Thai women, while creating products that are both environmentally-friendly and aesthetically-captivating.
In 2010, the women sold more than 280 bags, and Fox said they hope to triple production and sales in the upcoming year. New additions to the online store, such as cell phone bags, are among the steps Thai Song is taking to ensure this increase.
"We are launching the production of earrings in November 2010. The earrings will be made from straws, bottle caps, and plastic bags," she said. "Last month we celebrated our first year anniversary with an ice-cream cake that melted faster than we could eat it. It was a time of encouragement for one another."
By taking advantage of the social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, Fox and the women of Thai Song have been able to reach markets that would have otherwise been unattainable.
"Our Facebook and Twitter accounts have connected us with new customers and distributors all over the world," Fox explained. "One day I received an e-mail from a man in the UK interested in promoting our bags and when asked how he heard about us, I was surprised when he said his wife was invited to join our Facebook group by a friend, which led him to our website. Facebook has a way of making the (world) shrink."
The addition of two new employees, young mothers in their 20s, also occurred last month - a milestone for Fox, who dreams of offering opportunities to empower as many Thai woman as she can. Currently, the number of Thai women working for Thai Song is 4 - Lek, Mai, Gay and Ao.
"We are in the process of expanding and looking to employee new women to work with our project," she explained.
The total operating staff members has gone up to five including Thai residents: Ponkampin, 22; Photiruk (Bank) Sangsawang, 22, and Waraporn (Kuan) Piwthong, 35. The two staff members from the United States are Fox, 23, and Jeremy Berlin, 22.
"My excitement for the future rises as our team becomes more and more developed," she said. "Two of these new staff just came on board and I'm excited about our potential as we grow as a team. They are passionate about seeing change in Thailand and the lives of our ladies. They invest their whole heart into the ladies' lives and I'm excited to see what impact this has on our project as we expand into the future."
While her Thai staff members receive a stipend from Thai Song, both she and Berlin are reliant on the generosity of their American family and friends for basic necessities and living expenses.
"Most of the support for my living expenses comes from my friends and family in the Garden area. Without their generosity this project would not be possible and I would not be able to continue living in Thailand," she said. "They have bent over backwards to see me through in this project by sending money for my necessities, purchasing Thai Song bags, and praying for me. At this point, the wonderful people of the U.P. are our biggest customer group."
"We've been blown away by the response we've received by the community," she continued. "We cannot thank you enough for investing your resources and energy to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged women in Thailand."
As time goes on, Fox hopes to eventually give the business back to the Thai women who have put time and dedication into the project. She offers training for the women to expand their knowledge of financial stability, paying off debt, taking initiative and improving their quality of life.
"I'm unsure at this time how long Thailand will remain my home, but regardless I'm excited to be a part of this project and excited to watch my Thai friends take greater initiative and ownership," she said. "As for the future, we have no idea what it may bring. We are taking Thai Song one step at a time. We are in awe of the success it has had over the past year and the growth we've seen in the business and the lives of our ladies alike."
For more information on Thai Song, visit the website at www.ThaiSongFairTrade.org.