Alliance Fair Trade Gifts seeks to do well and to do good

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BENNINGTON — To step into Alliance Fair Trade Gifts is to be surrounded in beautiful, handmade items around the world, artfully displayed in a welcoming space that's flooded with natural light. There are colorful scarves made of yak's wool, shopping bags made — not that you'd ever be able to guess — from recycled plastic bags, earrings crafted from sea glass, turned rosewood pens, crocheted lap blankets and many more products, all lovingly displayed in cases and hanging from racks.

But it's not your usual boutique. At Alliance, the primary agenda is not merchandising, but the alleviation of poverty, both around the world and around the corner.

"Many people, near and far, are being helped by every purchase made," said Pam Santarcangelo, one of the founders and volunteer workers. "No one here involved with the store earns a penny — all proceeds are sent to the Third World nation artisans, and to local groups who work with those who have financial needs."

Originally selling its items from a church foyer and taking them on the road to college campuses, Alliance has recently moved into a space all its own, in the lower level of the Missionary Alliance Church on Crescent Street.

Alliance carries goods from a number of partners. There's Altiplano, a Brattleboro-based company that works with co-ops, small family businesses and its own fair trade workshop; US Sherpa, an Essex Junction company that teams up with weavers and knitters in Nepal; and the Women's Bean Project, a food producer that hires chronically unemployed women across the United States. All of the partners are fair trade companies, which means that they encourage sustainability and are committed to workers' rights to livable wages and decent working conditions.

Turned wooden pens are made on the premises, in a workshop next to the salesroom. Outfitted with power equipment that includes a lathe, a drill press, a stationary belt sander and more, the workshop was funded through grants of $1,875 from the Vermont Community Fund and $3,750 from the Bennington Idea Fund. The small pool of workers develop workplace skills that can help them move away from welfare and toward self-dependence.

"We're giving people the opportunity to learn job skills that will transfer into any job field, which is just confidence," said Ed Blue, the church's pastor. "We can work with people to give them a little boost ... not a handout, but a hand up."

The idea of empowering people in poverty is a common thread, both at Alliance and with its partner companies. "Everyone has talents they can use to lift themselves out of poverty," John Santarcangelo, Pam's husband and an elder of the church, said. The church's challenge, he said, is "how do we impact our local area, and how do we get people out of welfare and into something productive?"

Prices are affordable — $20 for a wool hat from the Himalayas, $18 for a purse from Guatemala, $35 for an earth tone scarf made of woven bamboo chenille — but the store does make a profit, thanks in part to having no payroll, and free rent. Net proceeds are channeled directly into local services, such as the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services, The Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, and The Cancer Center Community Crusaders.

There's another spinoff from the store, too. Some of the volunteers have been unemployed or underemployed, and learn useful skills at Alliance that help make them more employable — dependability, for instance, and problem-solving skills.

Alliance was started in the spring of 2016 by Pam and her husband, John. He explained that the store is the synthesis of ideas he gathered from three books: the highly influential "Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty" by by Muhammad Yunus, "When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself" by Steve Corbett, and "Be the Message: Taking Your Faith Beyond Words to a Life of Action" by Kerry and Chris Shook.

The renovation and outfitting of the new space was accomplished on a tight budget, a $1,250 donation from a member of the congregation. A dresser was a side-of-the-road freebie, now refinished; chairs came from Goodwill; a lamp was a leftover from a yard sale; mannequins were donated. Volunteers painted the walls a shade of pastel green.

If all goes well, Alliance Fair Trade Gifts may be on the move again. The organizers have their eye on the former Salvation Army store, just a few hundred yards away on South Street. That would give them more visibility, and more working space.

"The dream, and the vision, are big," Pam Santarcangelo said.

David LaChance can be reached at dlachance@benningtonbanner.com, and at 447-7567, ext. 115.

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