Designed For Joy opened the doors of its Cabarrus Street studio store in December, but it’s been a nonprofit in the making for years. Friends and co-founders Cary Heise and Kristen Sydow decided, following a church mission trip, that they wanted to find a way to empower local women. They sought to assist women experiencing difficult life transitions by giving them jobs in a safe, comfortable environment that paid them a living wage—the first step for many to regaining their independence and a sense of purpose.
“[Our main goal] is giving women the opportunities to make a fair wage and to be able to take care of their children and families,” Heise says.
Drawing on Sydow’s skills in design and crafting, as well as on their travels to countries where women support themselves through work with textiles, Heise and Sydow decided to teach local women how to create fashion accessories using ethically sourced products from countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize. Local women—who may have recently left prison or rehabilitation centers, or who have escaped human trafficking or are recovering from illness—would be trained as artisans; their customers, Heise and Sydow envisioned, would know exactly where their purses and jewelry came from, but also that the money they paid for those accessories would go back to support the artisans, the local women who need it most.
“When you look at our products, we aren’t really selling jewelry, we’re selling hours,” Heise says of the goods that, though fun and fashionable, ultimately serve a much higher purpose. “The more we can sell to people coming in for retail or for wholesale, it’s just more hours we can give to help our artisans.”
To start out, Heise and Sydow teamed up with local organizations, including Caring Connections Ministry, Shield North Carolina and the Green Chair Project, that were already assisting women experiencing life transitions. The pair recruited several women as artisans for their store, including 13 women from Caring Connections, which pairs women with mentors.
“One of the things our system lacks in terms of helping people become more stable, financially or educationally, is the relationship component,” says Cynthia Thelen, the director of Caring Connections Ministry. “It’s very easy to have some programs that meet a tangible need. We need programs that fill a need for food and security, programs that help reduce rent for those who are going to be working on a lower income level, but it’s the relationship component that is often the biggest catalyst for change.”
Thelen adds that the living wage component—Designed for Joy pays its artisans $12 an hour—is especially important.
“We have moved away from [the two parent family structure] as a society and, primarily, we see a lot of women in the head of household trying to provide a stable future for their families,” Thelen says. “To provide them the support and resources and the educational pull to make that happen, we have to gear our services to them.”
While Caring Connections Ministry serves more as a mentor program than a job and skill-builder, like Designed For Joy, both organizations highlight the need to ensure that women in Raleigh, and in North Carolina, aren’t slipping through the cracks when it comes to getting an education and securing employment, no matter their life circumstances.
For instance, North Carolina has consistently ranked among the top 10 states in the country for trafficking of women and children, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Women also comprise around 7 percent of the inmate population in the state’s prisons, according to state data, and many will eventually need re-entry assistance. And, according to recent data from the state’s Council For Women, nearly 3,000 women were seen for incidents related to domestic violence in a typical month in Wake County, many of whom need work to help them move forward.
Once women arrive at Designed For Joy, Heise and Sydow bring them together in workshops to learn how to make the products that the store will sell. They teach them skills such as sewing, knot-tying, fabric dying and more. Then, when the store opens, the women get to work the retail side, gaining experience in store management, taking inventory, quality control and shipping.
Since Designed for Joy is still growing, Heise says it’s difficult to give artisans a full-time job. Currently the goal is to have five artisans on hand at a time, each working for 25 hours a week. Once an artisan feels ready to move forward, she enters the professional world with marketable skills and solid references that Heise provides.
Designed For Joy is a ministry as well as a mentoring organization and a store. Heise says before every workshop and store opening, there is a devotion and prayer, as she feels it spreads warmth and camaraderie through the team. Setting up as a ministry has brought partners, volunteers and artisans onboard, but Heise says there’s a wider focus.
“You don’t have to be a Christian to come and work alongside of us, but this shop is kind of a way for us to grow our ministry too, and to spread faith,” Heise says. “These women are not just our ministry, but we are a ministry to the whole community.”
Lauren, one artisan who works in the studio, says she and other women love working at Designed for Joy.
“They care about us as workers and women,” she says. “They pray for us, they teach us, they help us. It’s unlike any work experience I have ever had before. We are just so thankful.”
Designed For Joy’s studio store at 1104 Cabarrus Street is open Thursday—Saturday from 10 a.m.—2 p.m. Find out more about the nonprofit ministry and available volunteer opportunities at