SHERIDAN — The idea derived from a few different places for Crystal Merriam.
Seeing single mothers struggle with employment and raising a child through her job at Legacy Pregnancy Center. Experiencing an unsuccessful garage sale where loads of clothes sat unpurchased.
With minimal sewing experience but recognizing an opportunity, Merriam followed a nudge from God encouraging her to start a nonprofit that employs parents at livable wages.
After hours of researching different ideas and reaching out to her pastor, Father Kevin Jones of Grace Anglican Church, Lagniappe was born.
Lagniappe, pronounced lan-yap, is the nonprofit where Merriam hopes to employ up to three trainees by July. Lagniappe, a term popular in the New Orleans region, means a little extra or just because. The Lagniappe Center is a new employment skills and community development initiative whose mission is to reduce poverty by employing parents at living wages, producing impactful products, according to the website.
A key component of the nonprofit is a pay-to-learn model — 60% of trainees’ 40-hour work week is spent in direct manufacturing and acquiring hard skills, while the other 40% is invested in individualized, supportive programming that will help make the participant more independent long term, the website said.
Merriam recognizes and believes poverty continues because of a lack of adequate wages for parents in the community, as well as a gap between education and workforce development experience. Trainees hired by the nonprofit will utilize recycled materials to sew pet beds. The beds, in turn, will be donated to local pet shelters initially, then when trainees and volunteers have a mastered prototype, they hope to expand into selling beds to consumers.
Because of Merriam’s dream but lack of experience in sewing, she’s relied heavily on help from experienced sewers in the community, which follows the model of the nonprofit in that Merriam intends to provide volunteer opportunities in multiple facets.
The 40% of the work week for trainees includes learning budgeting, cooking, gardening, spiritual formation, entrepreneurship, tutoring and other “soft” skills, which community volunteers may sign up to teach. Currently, the nonprofit will work through Grace Anglican Church until it is stable enough to seek its own nonprofit status. Jones sees the potential in Merriam’s idea to positively impact the community.
“(Crystal has) got such a great heart for people who are hurting, people who are panicked, people who are struggling, whether that’s an unplanned pregnancy or just to make a living,” Jones said. “And a long history of that, helping people after Katrina and all that. That’s just who they are, she and Curtis (Merriam) as a couple.
“This is a no-brainer for us to get behind and support,” Jones continued. “We’re just providing space for them to set up shop at this point, and when she’s able to get the thing rolling, we’ll see what else needs to be done, and we’ll step up when we can.”
Jones said he appreciates Merriam is bringing in so many people from the community to help teach trainees soft and hard skills. One of those volunteers is longtime community nonprofit contributor Rhonda Gould, who sews full time for Kennon and on the side for her personal sewing and repair business. Gould volunteers as a Big in Big Brothers Big Sisters, teaching her Little how to sew, in addition to completing projects for CHAPS Equine Assisted Therapy, including their hay barn cover. Gould jumped at the opportunity to contribute to Merriam’s cause, learning about the nonprofit from Kennon coworker Brittni Schmit.
Merriam praises Gould’s work and giggled at a text from her “sewing guardian angel” that told Merriam of ways to find and give all trainee graduates of the program a sewing machine as an earned parting gift when they leave the nonprofit to continue employment elsewhere in the community.
The partnerships with multiple businesses — like Kennon in several ways, including providing leftover foam stuffing from their projects; and Sheridan Tent and Awning providing leftover heavy fabric from their operations for the pet beds — brings the third element Merriam said is often difficult for some to obtain: connections.
“I would like to start connecting potential employers with what we’re doing and build those bridges early on and say, ‘Could we do an internship, a paid internship? Can they try you out, can you try them out?’” Merriam said.
With elements still needing fine-tuned, Merriam anticipates growing the base for the nonprofit — including volunteers, financial backing and material accumulation — before officially starting this summer. Her ultimate goal is to connect community members with parents in need of solid, adequate-paying employment.
“How hard is it for people who, they suddenly become single parents or they’re unexpectedly pregnant, and you can’t get a college degree in nine months, and a baby impacts your ability to do all of those things well,” Merriam said. “I don’t think it’s impossible for someone to do it on their own, I just think if the church and the community, if they can come alongside people, it’s a win-win-win-win all the way around.
“It’s just a beautiful thing,” she said.