Nonprofit Designed for Joy Rises to the Occasion

Nonprofit Designed for Joy Rises to the Occasion

Raleigh nonprofit Designed for Joy (DFJ) gives vulnerable women dignified work. At Designed for Joy, women who come out of trafficking, homelessness, or the prison system are trained as artisans. They make high-quality leather bags, jewelry and home decor. Executive director and founder, Cary Heise, believes in second chances.

“We really like to inspire other small businesses and people with criminal records as well,” Heise says. “Let us be the proof that you can hire, and give people second chances, and they will do good work for you.”

A Holistic Process

Co-founder and designer, Kristen Sydo, teaches the artisans to sew, cut leather and work with the hardware to make beautiful leather purses.

The transitional, living-wage work allows the women who come through Designed for Joy’s studios to leave with refreshed resumes and a solid job reference. DFJ also offers additional training on resume writing or interviewing.

For an artisan who has a “blemish” on their background check, DFJ actually shows her what the background check looks like.

Heise elaborates, “We want her to know what her next employer is going to see so that there are no surprises. It’s a really hard day, but it’s a great opportunity for us to remind her, ‘That is the past. This is your new future. You already have a job. That’s not dependent on what’s on your background check.’ So it’s a good reality check and a good reminder of where she’s going.”

Since its founding in 2017, Designed for Joy has employed 35 artisans. Some have gone on to work in construction, restaurants and offices. “It’s not unusual for past artisans who have been gone for a while to use us for job references even much later after they’ve left,” Heise says.

Designed for Joy’s artisans learn to cut and sew leather and work with hardware to make premium leather bags. Image courtesy of Jenelle Botts/Designed for Joy.

It’s in the Details

Designed for Joy studio
Image courtesy of Jenelle Botts/Designed for Joy.

DFJ aims for integrity and quality in all they do—including their materials, craftsmanship and wages.

Heise explains, “I think it’s important to know that even the sourcing of our products is important to us, so we source our leather and hardware as best we can. We do pay a living wage, $13.76,” which is higher than the minimum wage of $7.25.

“We just try to be mindful of every single aspect of our business. . . . It’s really the details of our business that speaks loudly to the way that we want to serve our community.” 

Cary Heise
Executive Director and Founder

Designed for Joy includes the studio as well as a storefront where their products are on display and for sale. The onset of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order, however, brought many changes to Designed for Joy’s doorstep.

COVID-19 forces “unnatural” move

“Initially, we did have to lay off all our artisans, which was very unnatural to us and the opposite of what we do.” Thanks to community support, however, Designed for Joy was able to re-hire those artisans within eight weeks.

While the studio remains opens to its employees, with CDC requirements in place, the storefront is closed to the community. Sales – and fundraising – is now almost entirely online. “We want to keep our studio clean,” Heise says, “because our women are in such vulnerable positions, they do not need the consequences of COVID in their lives.”

Community support enables the studio to continue.

DFJ has gotten creative about ways to keep connected to the community. One way is through sidewalk pop up sales on Fridays and Saturdays. Another way is through porch parties.

Cary Heise stands outside Designed for Joy’s storefront in Raleigh.
Image courtesy of Designed for Joy.

At a porch party, an individual hosts a small gathering at her home where one of every product that Designed for Joy makes is on display. If the host’s friends see something they like, they can get a discount code and purchase it through their phones.

“That’s been a great, innovative way to continue bringing funds in and supplement from the loss of vendor events,” Heise says.

The loss of vendor events, especially leading up to and through the holidays, is a blow to Designed for Joy’s sales opportunities. Heise, however, remains upbeat and grateful for the way the community has supported them.

Designed for Joy joined Awareness through Aesthetics and Shield North Carolina for fundraising efforts to combat human trafficking in the Raleigh area. With the funds DFJ received from this, DFJ put the money towards payroll and a new laptop for the store.

Designed for Joy is also hosting its largest fundraising event of the year on the evening of September 24. The evening will include prerecorded “stories from volunteers, and artisans, and donors, and leadership, and just a really great overview of what our program is doing.” There will also be an online silent auction. Already, many supporters have donated their time and services towards that.

Use this time as a unique way to connect to your community.

Heise knows this time presents many challenges for organizations. She advises other nonprofit and business leaders, “Talk to your community.”

She identifies the opportunity “for business owners and nonprofit leaders to serve their communities in a really unique way. And our communities are super willing to support local organizations right now, too.”

“I think it’s important to realize that everyone is learning this at the same time, and no one has this figured out.” Be clear in your policies, but know that you will also have to keep adapting. Doing that as best you can is a service to your employees and community.

“I think for us, we will always err on the side of caution, because—everyone cares about their employees—but we especially care about the women that we hire to be well.”

For more on Designed for Joy and to shop their products, visit their homepage.

Attend the online fundraiser at 7 pm with a playback at 8 pm on September 24 here.

Read more on how North Carolina businesses and organizations are adapting with aplomb to the pandemic environment in our ongoing Pivot Series.