The young girls file into the classroom one by one, many announcing their arrival with a high-pitched "Hi, Ms. Joy." As they gather around the table Joy McBrien starts handing out an assortment of strings, beads, colorful faux jewels to the girls.
It's art club at the all-girls Laura Jeffrey Academy in St. Paul, Minn., and the students intensley craft their jewelry under the watchful eye of McBrien, an AmeriCorps promise fellow at the school and a 2011 Carlson School graduate.
As for the jewelry they make, some they'll keep, while some McBrien will sell and send the proceeds to a battered women's shelter in Chimbote, Peru.
McBrien has had a connection to the women's shelter since 2008 when she visited Chimbote, one of the poorest towns in the world, to start the shelter with the help of a local parish.
"Peru has the highest domestic violence rate in the world, 70 percent. I went there after my freshman year at Carlson, and after I decided I wanted to build a battered women's shelter and learn nonprofit management by managing a nonprofit, so that's what I did," says McBrien, who graduated with a nonprofit management and entrepreneurial management major and a design minor.
Only 19 years old at the time, McBrien raised funds, coordinated with the parish in Chimbote, and when all was set, she went to Peru and dove right into helping build the shelter with her own hands.
A jewel of an idea
That was her first visit, and during her time back in the states, McBrien, who had been making jewelry since the age of 16, got to thinking. "I thought, I have more than enough, why not start selling jewelry for people who need it? It could pay for someone's water. So that's what I did."
On her second visit to Chimbote in 2010, McBrien brought her jewelry funds to help support the women's shelter. During her three-month stay, she organized a domestic violence support group, taught English, and started an artisan group for the women to learn a trade and converse witheach other.
"It's a safe atmosphere," she says of the artisan group. "We taught them how to make rosaries and decided that all the women had to make them and try to sell them. All the money from those sales goes back to support the group, so it's self-sustaining. They also make things to sell to support their children."
Now most of the money from McBrien's jewelry sales goes toward the domestic violence group. The battered women's shelter itself is rather self-sufficient now, with the help of the parish.
Narrowing the achievement gap
McBrien planned to head to graduate school after graduating from the Carlson School to study public policy and international development, as well as join the Peace Corps which would have required her to be overseas for two years. Her plans changed just two weeks short of graduation.
"At the time I was coming up with a business plan for my fair trade clothing company I pitched at Bizpitch, and I was told by a professor that I just had to pursue my business," McBrien says. "To do so, I just couldn't be out of the country for two years with the Peace Corps."
With her clothing company a work-in-progress, McBrien joined AmeriCorps, which is how she came to be an AmeriCorps promise fellow at the Laura Jeffery Academy in August 2011.
"It's a really interesting school," McBrien says. "I walked in the door and thought, OK, this is where I'm supposed to be. The school is diverse; they are girls from all areas, everyone has different backgrounds. I've always been a little of a social justice buff, so it's a really neat place."
Her position is designed to directly attack the achievement gap. She acquires and coordinates afterschool tutors for the students, manages community relationships, develops logistics (the who, what, when, where) for all the classes, teaches a service learning class, and she also took it upon herself to totally revamp the school's mid-day enrichment programming by instilling student-selected clubs such as year book club and, of course, art club.
"Laura Jeffery Academy students would not have the benefit of afterschool tutoring and extra help during the school day without Joy's work," says Cindy Reuther, executive director of the academy. "The revamp of mid-day programming has generated more engagement and motivation in our students. Joy always has students' best interests in mind when making decisions and creating programming."
Now energized by her experience at the academy, McBrien is hoping, with the help of a Fulbright scholarship for which she recently applied, to live in Chimbote next year to study girls education and start a fair trade clothing company from the ground up.
If she doesn't receive the Fulbright, she aims to live in Guatemala to work on her clothing company there.
"I'm trying to tie them all in a nice, neat bow," she says of all her interests. "But really, what I'm looking for now is my next 'happy-step.' I feel like that will lead me to where I want to go."
McBrien's jewlery can be purchased on Etsy.