By Jillian Gandsey The Bemidji Pioneer, Minn.
A new shop in downtown Bemidji has a mission to do more than just sell.
The Least of These is referred to by owners Jenn Anderson and Jen Kovach as a "social change boutique" and art studio.
The duo met while working at Evergreen Youth and Family Services in Bemidji and were inspired by Anderson's mission trip to Kenya five years ago.
Anderson started a women's project focused on micro-enterprise in Kenya. Her family also started a school, which now has 500 students, and a feeding program. During that time, she also met Kovach.
"We love what we're doing over there, it's amazing," Anderson said. "But we love our community too and we didn't want to leave Bemidji behind as we moved forward in our work."
The boutique, at 310 Fourth St. NW, is open for local artists to come in and sell their merchandise or artwork. The artists who consign with The Least of These choose a charity or cause where a portion of their proceeds are donated.
"They have some of their proceeds going to the Boys & Girls Club, or some of their proceeds going to the women's shelter or the food shelf," Kovach said.
Anderson and Kovach also sell items as part of a fair and direct trade program from countries they've visited in Africa.
Selling items for fair or direct trade pays people in impoverished countries fairly for the time they put into their work.
The pair also brought back coffee beans from their last African trip and had them locally roasted in Bagley.
"That was a huge hit," Anderson said. "We sold out very quickly because it was so good."
The art studio portion is located in the back of the boutique. With bright red painted walls, it features a big table for anyone to use, a small stage and plenty of art supplies.
Having been employed at Evergreen, the pair has worked with plenty of at-risk youth, they said. The studio is open to teens and young adults who want to escape through art.
"We know how powerful art is in terms of creativity and in terms of being able to tell your story and in terms of healing through whatever these young people have been through," Kovach said.
The Least of These operates as a faith-based nonprofit and Kovach and Anderson said they want to provide troubled youth with a place where they can turn to God.
"We don't impose anything on people," Anderson said. "We're here to just really encourage and provide hope and just to love up on anyone who comes through here."
Visitors to the art studio will also have the opportunity to sell their work in the boutique.
"It obviously won't be a requirement," Kovach said. "But it's an opportunity for them to be validated."
Anderson and Kovach are also looking for volunteers to help run the shop. The Least of These is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. They can be found on their website, www.handsofactioninternational.org, or on Facebook.
"We see The Least of These helping the least of these and that's just a beautiful thing to see that kids in our community who have had pain and hardship for them to turn that into something positive that helps somebody else here or in our world," Anderson said.