DeKALB – Despy Bales of Wayne cares about people. She cares about her family, her friends, her neighbors and even people she hasn’t met that live half a world away.
Bales founded Sozo Market, 665 E. Lincoln Highway in DeKalb, in November 2013. The shop is run entirely by volunteers and keeps no profit. The store is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Items for sale include scarves and quilts made from saris in India, metal wall art made from steel drums in Haiti, stuffed animals that benefit orphans in Africa and jewelry made from pearls and precious gems from Asia.
All of the money raised from the selling of goods is returned to the vulnerable people that made the items: poor women in India, families in the Philippines and human trafficking victims in Thailand.
Bales met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss Sozo Market, the items for sale and how the money raised helps orphans, children and women in need around the world.
Milton: How did you first get involved in missionary work?
Bales: I was working with a missionary organization called Narimon for about five years. Once a year, we would have a sale at church, selling things like jewelry, handbags and skirts. Through the missionary, I learned that women that made the items were once human trafficking victims in Bangkok. I learned more and more about the women and their story. I wanted to do more to help.
Milton: How did you want to help?
Bales: That’s when I had the idea of opening up a store. I didn’t have enough product to sell, so I researched. There are a lot missionaries helping people throughout the world. They’re helping them help themselves, not giving a hand out, but a hand up.
Milton: Like the saying, “Give a man to fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime?”
Bales: Exactly. The missionaries are about becoming a bigger part of their lives. There are plenty of fair trade stores who make sure artisans are getting a fair price – this is admirable. But these missionaries are rescuing exploited women or serving orphans and empowering them to make a good life for themselves and their families. They will have the materials and food they need for earthly comforts, but also the Gospel, too. … All the money made from purchased items is sent back to the missionaries and creators of the items. The only bills the store has is rent and utilities. We are all-volunteer, with no salaries.
Milton: What are items made from in each country?
Bales: It’s like a geography lesson walking around the store. It depends on the country. In Africa, they make things from banana fiber, cattle horn, grasses and hand-rolled paper beads. In India, people often throw out saris that have a stain. With the good material, the women can make quilts and scarves. In Asian countries, like Thailand, they have pearls and semi-precious stones in abundance. In Haiti, they can find 55-gallon steel drums and make wall art from them. In each country, they find the resources available and repurpose them. With some additional training and technology from missionaries, like teaching them how to use a sewing machine, they can make better items faster.
Milton: What items do you sell in your store?
Bales: The store has a mix of items: some have a bold, international flare and others are more understated. Products include wall art, sari quilts, baskets and kitchen items, wood or soapstone animals, stuffed animals, hairbands, clothing, accessories and jewelry. The items are perfect for gifts. They’re unique and many are one-of-a-kind. For example, you can give a piece of jewelry made by a woman in Bangkok rescued from human trafficking. That gift has significance and a story. Also, a goal of mine is to keep the pricing reasonable. Many fair trade markets are very pricy. Sozo Market is priced for DeKalb.
Milton: Do you also have items for men?
Bales: I’m glad you brought that up. Although the store focuses on helping women, men are also being helped. In the Philippines, whole families create what we would consider friendship bracelets with elaborate designs. In the store we have many items for men, including African shirts and clothing for men, artwork, cattle horn jewelry, leather bracelets and Christmas ornaments.
Milton: Do you have a second store location?
Bales: I sell some items at Amazing Grace Antiques in Elburn. They have some dealers supporting ministry, so we share a common thread. They don’t only sell antiques, they have reproductions that look like items from days gone by. We have partnered since Sozo Market opened in that they have given me some furniture to use for display and sell to help cover expenses. All of the furniture inside my store is for sale, too.
Milton: How do you receive the items you sell?
Bales: Some missionaries are more established with a distribution model, headquarters in the United States and a website that shows items for sale. Rafiki Foundation is one such organization. They are headquartered in Florida and have orphanages in 10 countries. They work with widows in these countries making beautiful handcrafted products. Other missionaries are less established. When they travel to the US, they pack a suitcase full of items.
Milton: Who makes the items?
Bales: Most items are made women rescued from human trafficking or those vulnerable to be trafficked. In some countries, older orphans in secondary education sew headbands and aprons to help support the orphanage and programs. Some items are purchased in local markets to benefit the younger orphans.
Milton: How does selling the items help them?
Bales: Selling the items helps them purchase and afford food, clothing, living accommodations and education. In Uganda, missionaries help care for and educate the orphans with the money from the sold items. The children can go on to college and become productive members of society. It starts a cycle. They can take on an apprentice and continue the work. The money can also be preventative and help teach young girls how to avoid being stolen and sold into the sex trade and human trafficking. The girls are in poverty and vulnerable. We need to prevent the problem before it happens.
Milton: Why is helping people across the world important to you?
Bales: For a few years, I did nothing, and it was a heavy burden on my heart. These issues affect different people differently. I think that God pushed me to a point of action. When you have compassion and love for something, you can’t be still and do nothing. There is a verse in the Bible that says, paraphrased, “You cannot say you love and do nothing.” I like to think of the store as love in action. That’s the whole point of the store. When love drives you, you want to take action. Some people go into the mission field, they go and help. This is where God put me.