Grand Traverse area residents and organizations know how to embrace a worthy cause. They did so in overwhelming style last summer when two Northern Michigan women who lead Red Dirt Road—a local nonprofit that links Cambodian hand-stitched garments and accessories with fashion-savvy Western consumers—introduced the region to the villagers’ compelling designs and personal stories at a successful week-long display in Traverse City.

Red Dirt Road returns to TC July 25–30 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day at Crooked Tree Arts Center. Exhibits will illustrate village life and offer many popular Red Dirt Road products, as well as several new product lines. An award-winning 14-minute documentary film accompanies the exhibit and depicts life in the village and the Red Dirt Road story. (The exhibit runs the same week as the Traverse City Film Festival, stop by while you’re in town!)

[Read this MyNorth feature about Red Dirt Road]

Last year’s event boosted product sales and donations to Red Dirt Road and proved life-changing for villagers in rural Tramung Chrum. Project organizers hope community residents and groups will again lend their support. Grand Traverse area support more than doubled Red Dirt Road’s annual sales, and helped provide jobs to village seamstresses, modernize the sewing shop, develop community vegetable gardens and improve hygiene.

The community’s response to Red Dirt Road literally helped feed village children, says Charlevoix resident Marie Eckstein, who shares the organization’s leadership duties with Interlochen resident Lin Alessio. “Villagers also told us they were able to save some money for their children’s education. One woman is saving for a house. She lives in a very small banana leaf hut. We also received many dollar donations which were used to build latrines, fund three families to start vegetable farms for profit, fund hygiene education and provide initial funds for a village woman to start a soap business.”

Red Dirt Road launched in 2012 as an effort to help Cambodian women break from big-city garment industry sweat shops and use their sewing skills in their home village. The business in Tramung Chrum now employs 13 young women and allows them to work in the village and live with their families.

Red Dirt Road produces high-quality, handmade women’s fashion accessories made primarily from Cambodian silk. The products include evening bags, casual handbags and an array of creative silk scarves.

The beautiful finished products are marketed in the United States through their website, retail outlets across Northern Michigan, home shows and group presentations.

The villagers’ challenges touched the Northern Michigan women and gave them a deep respect for their spirit, work ethic and love for their families. After helping launch the sewing business, Eckstein and Alessio initiated several projects designed to improve the quality of life for all Tramung Chrum residents. Among them:

  • Hundreds of eyeglasses provided for three villages
  • 33 family vegetable gardens
  • Micro-financing of three “business gardens”—small farms created with the intent to sell produce as a business venture
  • Funded English lessons for children
  • Additionally, 10 village latrines have been built, some of which were constructed by a crew from the village as a pilot for a new local business.

“When you realize the Cambodian people are no different from you and me, that they were just unfortunately born in an undeveloped country, it makes you want to help,” Alessio says. “And when you empower people, you can change one village, one person at a time.”

—Press Release provided by Red Dirt Road

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Photo(s) by Rodney Rascona