- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - When Dawn Bridget Close was growing up on a ranch in Williston, she had no way of knowing that a childhood shaped by hard work would serve her well decades later in Africa.

Unenthusiastic about required chores at home, she dreamed of living in a city, and soon did. After playing basketball at Williston High School, she earned her associate’s degree here and moving on to the University of North Dakota.

Years later, the hard physical labor and familiarity with power tools that were part of her early life have lent success to her efforts to assist impoverished women in Zambia.

Close, who organized the Foundation for the Realization of Economic Empowerment, or FREE, about five years ago, is leading a group of young women as they create jewelry that’s being sold worldwide.

The former farm girl, who’s lived in Africa over the course of more than 30 years, drew on her childhood lessons in determination and practicality to push the project forward. Neither she nor the women of FREE had any experience with jewelry-making, which led to many challenges, but never defeat, for the group.

“Because I grew up on a ranch, I had all sorts of skills that really helped,” Close told the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/1FZqHNt ). “You figure out whatever it is you need to do to get the job done. That’s extremely vital in Africa; things don’t just fall into place.”

A year-and-a-half-long struggle to find a working soldering torch to fuse together tiny pieces of metal was one such thing.

“It was just an ordeal, but you keep pushing away at it,” she said.

Close, 57, founded FREE, which is aimed at helping young Zambian women realize their personal, creative and economic worth, in an effort to build up marginalized women. She began to recognize a need in the male-dominated country after moving to Zimbabwe with her former husband in 1984. The couple served as missionaries for more than 20 years until Close, who’d recognized her own deep lack of self-esteem, left her husband and returned to the U.S., eventually earning a master’s degree in public policy with a focus on international development.

“My issues of dealing with self-esteem and worth as a woman are the building blocks of the organization,” she said. “There’s a new future for the women that I work with, I think it’s setting a new course for women in poverty. We kind of have out of the box thinking when it comes to development … it’s really a marriage of economic development and how women see themselves.”

The jewelry project, initiated in 2012, is a success on many levels. Close has watched young women struggling with terrible self-image grow into confident, capable artists.

More than 20 women, many of whom are single mothers ranging in age from 17 to 25, create unique pieces in a small workshop in the Ng’ombe community. The women fashion copper jewelry from electrical wire and recycled water heaters, twisting, pounding and soldering the metal into beautiful necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings.

Copper’s abundance in Zambia made it a natural choice for the jewelry, which is accented by amethysts and emeralds, gemstones that are found in abundance in the country.

The pieces are sold in Europe, South Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Canada and the United States.

In Zambia, tourists buy the jewelry in five-star hotels and safari lodges, Close said.

Models wore the group’s ornaments on the runway during South African Fashion Week this year after the jewelry was featured during Zambia Fashion Week in 2014. The pieces will make another appearance during the country’s fashion week this year as a stand-alone entry.

The group’s global success was not instant. Rather, the women experimented, turning out dud after dud as they honed their metal-working skills and creativity for months.

“We’re self-taught in all this,” Close said.

Now, women who joined the group believing they were capable of very little are teaching new members to make accessories that will wind up being sold in fancy stores.

One girl struggled a year to create something that would sell. When she finally created an elegant ring out of copper wire fashioned into a heart, she was thrilled when they became popular.

When the pieces sell, nearly half of the income goes to the young artists. The money, though, doesn’t seem to be as important as the sense of accomplishment that the women have earned.

“I see an exponential growth in their lives, with the confidence they get from knowing they have a skill,” Close said.

Despite her strong Christian beliefs, Close has been able to critically examine the effect of traditional church teachings on the wellbeing of women in the country.

“The church has been one of the promoters of male dominance, leading to women being abused, there’s also the family thing, the shame of divorce,” she said.

By teaching Bible classes for adults and Sunday school to kids in Zambia, Close has a forum to spread her interpretation of the scriptures.

“I think it goes back to that God values women,” she said.

The Williston native returned to her hometown recently to reconnect, and spread the word about her growing projects. She’s looking for potential investors or business partners, funding, and adventurous people with marketing, social media and handicraft skills who are willing to travel to Africa for a time.

“I’m looking for people to get involved in what I do in Africa in a variety of ways; financial support, people interested in coming over and helping with training, I’m looking for people who are good in business and women who are really crafty,” she said.


Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

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