Changing Lives, One Purse At A Time

By Heather J. Carlson Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The nonprofit "Unshattered" sells bags and purses made by women who are in recovery. Columnist Heather Carlson sits down with the 41-year-old founder Kelly Lyndgaard to talk about why she has dedicated her life to helping women who are battling drug addiction.

Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.

Former Rochester resident Kelly Lyndgaard was a high-ranking IBM executive when a chance encounter with a woman who had battled drug addiction changed everything.

She would later quit her job and found Unshattered, a nonprofit dedicated to helping support women recovering from drug addiction.

The organization sells bags and purses made by women who are in recovery. All the money raised goes toward employing the women and supporting the Walter Hoving Home -- a nonprofit with residential treatment facilities in three states.

On Thursday and Friday, Lyndgaard will return to Rochester for Unshattered's first trunk show in Minnesota.

The Post-Bulletin interviewed the 41-year-old about the upcoming trip and why she has dedicated her life to helping women who are battling drug addiction.

Question: When did you move to Rochester?

Answer: I came out there straight out after college. I worked at IBM for about 11 years and then moved out to New York to do a rotation at IBM corporate. I decided to stay and eventually worked my way into an executive position out there, thinking I would never leave IBM. And along the way I got to know this organization called the Walter Hoving Home and just fell in love with these girls doing the hard work of recovering from addiction.

Question: What inspired you to leave your job and start helping women recovering from addiction?

Answer: The moment of change was a women's event at my church. One of the girls that was in the recovery program at the home shared her story of having been 8 years old, her father had left the family and her mom was sick in bed with lupus. So at 8, Emily was taking care of herself and her mom and her brother. She had a friend with a 15-year-old brother who thought it would be funny to get an 8-year-old high. Fast forward 10 years and she's a homeless, mainline heroin addict. And for the first time in my life, I thought, "There is no other outcome to that story. She was 8."

Question: How did you come up with the idea of selling handbags?

Answer: When my grandfather passed away, I got his suede coat handed down to me, but it was too big, and the shoulder seams were ripped out and the elbows were worn off and it hung in a closet for a long time. So one day I finally was like, "I am going to cut that up and make a bag out of it." My Mom had taught me to sew growing up. I really hadn't done a whole lot as an adult, but I thought, "That will be be kind of a cool project." So I took it apart, cut it up, cut out the good pieces of suede and turned it into a tote bag that I now use.

Question: Where do you get the materials for your bags?

Answer: Everything that we make our bags out of is literally headed to the dump. So it's leather or suede coats that are worn out. It's military uniforms that are retired. Manufacturing scrap. When companies are using thousands and thousands of yards and they have a couple of hundreds of yards left over, it's trash to them. So they are paying to get rid of it. If they give it to us, they get to take a tax write-off, and it's a treasure to us.

Question: Who makes the bags?

Answer: The women make the bags. I taught the first couple how to sew, and they have just taken the ball and run with it since then. All the designs come from them. They teach one another. That's my favorite part -- when somebody new comes on the team because usually she is being taught by somebody who not too long ago was crying because she didn't know how to sew.

Question: How many bags does your organization sell?

Answer: We sell about 1,500 bags per year.

Question: How many employees does Unshattered have?

Answer: There are four full-time employees, two more in a training on-ramp and eight more still in the recovery program who work 20 hours per week. I try to view the women as entrepreneurs. While they are in the recovery home, I tell them, "Here's the quantity and quality of bags that you would need to make to create a job for yourself, and if you can deliver that when you complete your program, you can move into a full-time salary role." It's not me choosing whether or not I'm going to hire you.

Question: Unshattered also does custom work?

Answer: We do heirloom pieces. People will bring in something special to them and we'll turn it into a bag. One of my favorite ones was a diaper bag, and we used the baby's great-grandfather's flannel work shirts.

Question: How much do the bags cost?

Answer: Our average selling price is probably $75 to $85, but we start in the $30s and we go up to about $250 on some of the more sophisticated or more expensive materials or custom items.

Question: Where do you sell them?

Answer: We sell them online at Unshattered.org. We have a boutique here in New York. We have nine stores throughout the country and growing -- I have a waiting list.

Question: Why did you want to come to Rochester to do a trunk show?

Answer: We have a really good following in Rochester because I used to live there for 12 years, and I have very supportive friends there. So we have a lot of women in the community who have just really invested in the women, shop the products. They will send letters of encouragement to the girls, pray for them. They're just really invested in my team, which I'm so grateful for.

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