Shafia London – parent, business woman and philanthropist – has marshalled several forces to be able to meet some of the needs of those displaced by the still restive La Soufriere volcano. The Bridges Store initiative is just one example of her innovative outreach.
Located upstairs Home Center in Kingstown, the apparel and shoe store is a short term, multi-purposed solution London told Asbert News Network.
She said, “I guess from my experience in business you always need to identify a problem and we recognized in all of the volcano relief efforts though persons are being very helpful – a lot of people have been helping – there is always a level of chaos in some aspects because of the quantity of items and the number of people you’re dealing with; you have to find ways of streamlining so that it becomes easier and less stressful for everyone.
“So I came up with an idea – why not open a boutique for displaced persons? Because growing up, especially in the country side, you grow up hearing about ‘bodow’ and the concept of bodow is always a very demeaning one.
“It’s where you went into a box – that’s what my aunts, mom and so on said to me – and you had dig and dig for things that could fit you and things would be strewn all over the place and it was just a very demeaning experience. I mean you are in need because you have been displaced but to have that added is not a nice feeling for anyone.
“So I decided, ‘why not come with the idea of a boutique?’ Here you have all these people donating clothes and people in need of clothes but you don’t want them to go through that experience. So I decided let’s open a boutique where people can go and shop but it would be a cashless boutique. So you give people vouchers and these vouchers would have a value to them which would be similar to cash.
“You take that voucher to the boutique and you decide what you want and you get to shop. You don’t have to look through any box, you don’t have to grovel for anything. They are nicely displayed, you could see your size, there’s a mirror and a changing room. And the items should always be either in great condition or new.”
To this end, London explained, her team is dedicated to selecting “only the absolute best things” from the “number of donations” they’ve received to date.
In the days since the idea went from concept to fruition “thousands” of Bridges vouchers were distributed, as per London’s development guide’s advice.
“One of the blessings I have is great people around me. So my mentor, Mr. Lennox Bowman – I went through the idea with him and he would have said to me, ‘you need to make sure it’s not going to be overrun because if you open a boutique and say ‘free for all’ everybody is going to come.’
“So it was his idea to actually give the vouchers to people who could verify that they [the shoppers] are actually people in need. So we gave the vouchers to like the Rotary Club of St. Vincent, the Roteract Club, the Lions Club South, Soroptimist International and then there have been these very active groups in the whole volcano relief so people like Madzart, Asberth, Jamelia James, Karen Viera, Chester Morgan, Troy Prince and Bishorn from the Leeward end – a number of people … so you know for sure they know the people who are in need so they have come on board to help with the distribution of vouchers.”
Voucher holders need only to present their vouchers to the cashier at check out. “Each voucher is valued 10 Bridges units,” London explained, and most items in the store are valued, “on average” at 10 Bridges units.
“So you can literally shop with the value of the vouchers. So let’s say you have 4 vouchers then you can pick up 4 items in the store.
Of the “close to 4 thousand” vouchers that were distributed prior to the Bridges store’s first week in operation, “we’ve already received over a thousand vouchers in week one.
“We’ve gotten back about 25 percent which is great after 5 days in operation and the demand has been growing so we’ve printed more vouchers and we recycle those already in circulation – they have different security elements to them so we know that they are the real ones,” London said when ANN caught up with her last Monday.
London, who is also the Commercial Manager for the Banks Holdings Limited headquartered in Barbados, was very excited at the response so far.
“People are coming and we also have been getting a lot of donors because people like the idea. A number of persons who received clothes are now saying that this is the best way for them to distribute the clothes because it is such a tedious exercise to do it any other way.
“So they’ve come and brought clothes – SVG First Responders, the Rotary Club also brought, a number of individuals and the Blue Lagoon Hotel and Marina. We again go through the items make sure they are good condition – most of them are actually new and people have been liking it.”
The idea was originally meant to be a very short term intercession for displaced persons. So much so that London supported the initiative “out of pocket” to get it up and running.
“Initially it was out of pocket so I decided I was going to rent this space so I contacted Bonadie’s upstairs Y De Lima and they gave me a really discount and I decided I’m going to pay the young ladies and so far donors who have asked to remain anonymous have come on board and have said, ‘we will help you.
“We will cover the cost of the store, we will cover the cost of the young ladies. So know it’s all completely funded for at least two months. Initially it was going to be a 30 day thing but it’s just gotten so positively overwhelming that people have come on board and we’re looking at having this for at least two months.
“It’s literally what the name says it is. It’s a bridge. It’s not a permanent solution. It’s for this temporary time when you’re in need so you can get these items. But there needs to be a transition so eventually persons would start to get back in their regular routine. They’d probably get support from other sources. It’s a bridge so it’s a short term. It’s not the end.”
She also explained that the store’s name is a celebration of her relief efforts to date and continuing.
London remembered crying at the thought of the possible impacts of the eruption on her childhood community in Dickson. Her tears long dried, she sprang into action and began ministering to the needs of an approximated 500 displaced babies aged 0 to 3 years. Additionally, within the first 2 weeks of the violent eruptions her team fed “over 700 people daily” as part of their Warm Meal programme.
In the very near future London, “is looking to take care of the Grade Sixers who are going back to school.
They are going to these Learning Hubs which the [Education] Ministry has created which is an amazing thing … but the challenge is the displaced students are going to the Hubs but they don’t have lunch.
“And so I’m working with a group, maybe the Rotary Club, to provide lunch to a student from the displaced areas who have to go to these Learning Hubs, especially Learning Hubs that are not necessarily shelters because there would be no way for them to get meals.”
This new bridge, London intimated, could be rolled out as early as day 2 of the Learning Hub experience.