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This Social Enterprise Toy Startup Is Creating Sustainable Jobs and Sustainable Smiles
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On a rainy day in  June 2013, Melissa Calixte felt an overwhelming desire to assist the global community. With boxes of fabrics in front of her and years of Design School behind her she set out to create the first sample of what would become Smile 2 Smile’s signature Buddy toy. That signature toy was created and quickly expanded into a family of toys which were then sent to children in Haiti.

 

When early supporters of Smile 2 Smile began asking about purchasing the toys, Melissa seized the opportunity to turn a small project into something bigger. Inspired by other socially responsible businesses, Melissa committed to combining local play and global consciousness into one fun and unique toy: the Buddy.

 

Since 2014, Smile 2 Smile has distributed over 250 Buddies to children in hospitals and orphanages across Haiti, collaborating with established organizations such as Partners In Health and Maison L’Arc-En-Ciel to spread happiness and friendship. From the AIDS orphans at MAEC to the sick children in the hot, overcrowded rooms of St-Marc’s hospital, the community saw big, bright smiles illuminate the faces of children as they were given the gift of imagination.

 

In the summer of 2015, Smile 2 Smile furthered its commitment to the people of Haiti by establishing its first production facility in the small rural town of Hinche, Haiti where 6 full-time employees produce the complete line of Buddies and Baby Buddies and earn a reliable, fair wage in a secure setting while continuing to develop their skills.

 

Below is a Q&A with the founder and designer of Smile 2 Smile, Melissa Calixte 🙂

 

 

 

What inspired the concept behind Smile 2 Smile?

 

I was trained as a fashion designer and was working in luxury menswear prior to launching Smile 2 Smile. I was quite successful in my field, but found myself seeking greater meaning. As I was looking for ways to have more impact while leveraging my existing skill set, I remembered the comfort I took in my Teddy bear as a child (which is still never far from my bed… ;)). At the time, I had friends traveling to the Middle East, helping war refugees. I was touched by the plight of the little ones who had to leave their friends and home. So I decided to design stuffed toys that could be gifted to displaced children through my friends. That was the start of the Buddy story. As I posted photos of my design on social media, I kept getting requests from parents to purchase the toys. That is when I started looking at other social enterprises to figure out how to turn it into more than a charitable side project, and instead create a sustainable chain for gifting. Blake Mycoskie’s work with TOMS shoes was a great inspiration, and I adopted the same business model.

 

Eventually, the Buddies I had made at the very beginning ended up traveling to Haiti (the logistics for Syria at the time didn’t work out…). I had arranged partnerships with orphanages and with PIH hospitals there. As we did the Buddy distribution, I saw the great joy in the children’s eyes, but I also couldn’t help thinking that it was crucial to deepen our impact and really support the families in need. Gainful employment seemed like the most empowering and sustainable answer, which led me to launch our sewing studio in Hinche, Haiti the following year.

 

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How did Smile 2 Smile come up with the design of the buddy?

 

The Buddy design happened quite organically, as I didn’t initially set out to design a commercial product. It was all about what would be fun for the kids I was going to gift them to. I worked using pattern-making and construction methods I had learned from the apparel industry. I wanted the Buddy to be comforting, playful and ignite the imagination: long arms are for hugs and for reaching out (very useful for Buddy-throwing contests also ;)), big ears listen to all little secrets, a squishy, huggable body for comfort. The colorways and patterns for the Buddy are always bright and cheerful, it’s part of our brand’s DNA. The Buddy isn’t a specific animal, which makes it even more fun. Is it a mouse? A bear? A monkey? A sloth (I’ve heard that one, too!) That is one of the playful and whimsical elements of the design.

 

 

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Have you found parents buying a buddy for their little ones are communicating the good their buddy is doing for a vulnerable child in Haiti?

 

I’m so glad you asked! Global awareness for children is a big part of our mission and it is one of the features of the Buddy that parents appreciate the most. Many parents have said that gifting a Buddy to their child gave them the opportunity to discuss sharing, giving back, gratitude, how other children live around the world, what they can do to help, etc. As early as 4-5 years old, children really understand the simple concept of sharing joy, comfort and play with another kid who isn’t as fortunate as they are.

 

It’s one of the beautiful things about the Smile 2 Smile initiative: it sparks discussion about doing good and giving back, in a simple and straightforward way that little ones understand. In fact, we are currently working on building on this important part of our message, and will soon be offering a platform for kids to discuss social causes and impact. 🙂

 

 

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How many female artisans are currently employed by Smile 2 Smile at your studio in Haiti? How has their progress been?

 

We currently are employing 5 mothers (4 artisans & 1 production manager) and a single father (security & maintenance) at our studio in Haiti, who all had little to no opportunity for work prior to Smile 2 Smile. The progress and impact have been amazing! We just celebrated the 1st year anniversary of the studio opening on July 21. When I started training the women (Betcheen, Éveline, Roselène, Anoni & Gerilia), we had a really long way to go. The village of Hinche has no reliable electricity, so the ladies were used to sewing on pedal machines. We trained to use industrial sewing machines (we have our own generator), to read and trace patterns, to cut, to package and keep inventory. They have also learned new sewing skills, such as French seams.

 

Together, we have created systems that allow them to be efficient and support each other as a team (no factory style linework here!) and they now all produce Buddies better than I ever did! It’s been incredible to witness their progress in the past year.

 

When we started, they could barely sew a straight seam, and now they consistently improve the construction process! In terms of impact on their lives, it’s been a dramatic change also.

 

They are now all financially independent and are able to put food on the table daily for their families. When we started work last year, some of the ladies were still waking up before dawn, to make food for their children to sell on the streets before they would come to work at 7:30. Now that they have access to steady and fair income, they no longer need to be concerned about making ends meet in that way.

 

 

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Share a story with us based on the positive impact Smile 2 Smile has brought to the communities you are working with.

 

Every child who shines a big smile after receiving a Buddy is part of our story! And we’ve had hundreds of those. But there is one story about our team that has really stuck with me. Shortly after I started renovations on the studio space last summer, I met Belo, our next door neighbor, and hired him as our security and maintenance man. He was so dedicated to helping us make the studio a wonderful place to work, and was a great connector within the community. I soon met his 2 young daughters, Betnelda & Rodeline. After Belo received his first pay, he told me that the money would allow him to get his daughters to graduate from their class. I was incredibly touched to be able to support a man who is so dedicated to supporting his family and providing his daughters with a good education. This crystallized Smile 2 Smile’s mission of supporting families and sharing happiness with children. And of course, kids (and girls!) who go to school grow up to build better and stronger communities.

 

We’ve seen in so many ways the important impact that steady and fair employment has had on our team. Our production manager Betcheen now helps care for some of her relative’s children, our artisan Eveline supports neighbors with small loans, and all our seamstresses can now put food on the table for their families, in a dignified, self-sustainable way.

 

We really aim to have a positive impact on the community every step of the way. Our studio was furnished by local wood and metal artisans, our Donation Buddies (the ones that are gifted to children in hospitals and orphanages) are made using fabrics we source in local textile shops, in Hinche. Every touch point is an opportunity to help empower the community we aim to support.

 

And of course, I have to say that the support is mutual. I lead an amazing team, and there is no way I could do this work without them. 🙂

 

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