Think Globally, Bead Locally

After traveling the world to supply their Havana shop, Wanderings, Tony Lombardo and Terri Paul came up with an idea to help their own community. Meet Team Unity.

Think Globally, Bead Locally Havana’s Team Unity creates jobs by creating jewelry By Laura Bradley

Traveling the world to supply their Havana shop, Wanderings, with jewelry and other eclectic items, Tony Lombardo and Terri Paul purchased items from many co-ops — groups of women who united to learn a unique artistic skill in order to support their families. Working with these groups from impoverished nations inspired the father/daughter team to ask themselves a question: If artisans in countries around the globe can craft jewelry to make ends meet, why can’t people here in the United States?

The answer was Team Unity.

“We figured that we had some of the same problems here that they were facing in Third World countries, Gadsden County being the second poorest county in Florida,” Paul explains. What’s “normal” for poor people in their store’s community is not what most of us could consider normal. Many houses are in disrepair, crowded with family members. “Forget having your own bedroom; forget having your own bed,” she says. It seemed logical to create a co-op where their business is located.

Becoming familiar with wholesale markets while buying jewelry, one of Wanderings’ biggest sellers in recent years, Lombardo and Paul realized the manufacturers and products, as well as the wholesalers themselves, were predominately foreign. Americans play only a small role in that market — but Team Unity is seeking to change that.

“Over the … last 18 years, we’ve hired a lot of people on a temporary basis to come in and work for us,” Lombardo explains. “They’re primarily people who don’t have jobs or are very under-employed. And a lot of them have been very good people … and I said, ‘We’ve got this thing going with jewelry. Why don’t we try to train some local people who are unemployed to make jewelry?’ ”

Lombardo and Paul worked with The Havana Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk, low-income people in the community find employment and develop skills, to recruit Team Unity’s first jewelers. Once the team was selected, they were trained with the help of Lizette Kelly, a local jewelry designer and owner of Lizette’s Beadginnings jewelry store.

The project kicked off in November 2010 with John Anderson, 26, Nicole Johnson, 26, and Tishana Perry, 36. The three received instruction and followed designs created by Kelly and Paul, making necklaces, bracelets and earrings from semiprecious stones, including amethyst, onyx, turquoise and tiger’s eye.

In the beginning, all three team members were unemployed or didn’t have enough work to earn a living. Now they are skilled jewelers with supplemental income, allowing them to seek further employment with far less financial worry. Two have found additional work and continue to make jewelry from home.

The jewelers have become so skilled they are beginning to create their own designs. Paul notes that an unexpected bonus of Team Unity’s work has been seeing each team member develop a designing style over time. “As we’ve evolved, their talents have come out,” she says.

While Johnson enjoys creating charm bracelets and necklaces — what Paul calls “dainty little jingly stuff,” Perry likes to make “really big, bold, in-your-face kind of stuff.” Anderson focuses on more masculine styles, using leather and cords that would appeal to teenagers. He has also developed an FSU-themed line. As the jeweler’s skill increases, so does the jewelry’s quality and value.

It’s not just the members of Team Unity who benefit from the work, either. Members are required to repay each hour of training with an hour-long commitment to community service within Havana. In the beginning, Team Unity painted local park equipment, and there will be more projects when more employees train. Lombardo stresses that Team Unity is far from a handout or social program.

“We’re trying to create a business that is profitable. There’s no charitable work here,” he insists. “We pay them for what they do and how well they do it. And if they don’t do well, they hit the streets like anybody else. But I’ve been blessed with three exceptionally good people.”

Beyond the additional financial security, Team Unity members are given something else: a skill doing something they have grown to love. As he beaded a bright red and white necklace, Anderson, who comes to work five days a week, noted with a laugh and a shake of his head that Team Unity has turned him into a jewelry freak, explaining, “It’s like it’s all I want to do in my spare time.”

In the future, Lombardo hopes the operation will grow to house more fulltime employees who can handcraft a lot more jewelry. Team Unity has already made steps in that direction. The jewelry’s retail debut in Wanderings last May was a resounding success, and sales continue to look promising.

Team Unity has also begun breaking into the wholesale market, offering its wares at wholesale shows in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. Late last year, Team Unity had its first wholesale debut outside of Florida at a show in Sevierville, Tenn.

Beyond its wholesale repertoire, Team Unity has also been garnering local attention. In September 2011, they were the primary exhibitor at the Tallahassee Mary Brogan Museum’s Titanic Gala, displaying Team Unity jewelry for sale in vintage suitcases. The displayed collections held to the Titanic theme: the “Lady Astor” set was glitzy and sparkly, while “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” carried a bold, Art Deco theme. The Titanic group captured the essence of the Arctic, with iceberg-like crystals and pearls.

Gala attendees showed “lots of interest,” noted Paul. “Everybody was excited to see us there.”

Something else that sets the Team Unity operation apart is the fact that customers who venture to Wanderings in Havana can have jewelry custom made for them by coming into the store and selecting stones, or even by simply showing clothing that the jewelry should match. With stones of almost every color, the artists are able to create a design to match almost any outfit. The pieces can incorporate slimmer bead strings or have larger, bolder designs. Earrings, bracelets, anklets and necklaces are all available for those who want a full set. Prices range from $12–$20 for earrings to $20–$60 for necklaces.

Regardless of its past, present or future plans and accomplishments, the underpinning of Team Unity is an ideology: Given the chance, the American people will seize opportunities and work to the best of their abilities to produce outstanding results. Lombardo contends this can make us competitive anywhere, even in wholesale markets.

“We need to start pushing again. ‘Made in the USA.’ So much of that has been lost. This little community (Havana) was built around the tobacco industry, and it was a cottage industry that everybody in this community worked at. It died because eventually the tobacco industry as they knew it moved to foreign countries. We need things to replace that. I would love to replace that with jewelry. We’ve gotta get other people to embrace that: ‘Made in the USA.’ ”