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HANGING ON HOPE: Social entrepreneurs make hammocks and community impact

It’s Friday morning in the basement of Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church in downtown Wilmington. As I follow Randy Evans down the narrow steps inside, he tells me to mind the silver air ducts hanging low overhead. “We still have to take care of those,” he notes. “It took us two months to renovate [the basement]. There was mold, lead—because it floods down here.”

A CHANCE AT HOPE: Aaron Johnson sews his second Hope Hammock at the Hope Center in downtown Wilmington. Photo by SR Gentry

A CHANCE AT HOPE: Aaron Johnson sews his second Hope Hammock at the Hope Center in downtown Wilmington. Photo by SR Gentry

Evans began renovations to the church basement in November 2015, with the intention to make it a safe space for folks without a permanent home or shelter to gather; a community center of sorts and much more. He opened what’s called “The Hope Center” last January to help build interpersonal relationships and to show people who walk down those narrow steps what community looks like.

“Community helps build self worth, and self worth gives them moments of dignity,” he explains. “You can give people a house, but until they feel they’re worthy of it, how are they going to maintain it?”

On a given day, about 30 people come to the Hope Center. The back half of the basement is a common area, with couches, chairs and a small TV. The numbers can double on Fridays, which is when they have breakfast and lunch. On this particular Friday, men are sitting around, talking while eating chili, and drinking coffee made in the kitchenette. There are also lockers to store belongings.

Evans kept the Hope Center “under the radar” for a few months while he continued to make adjustments and improvements to the space. As word of mouth attracted people in need of some daily refuge, Evans has been able to invite other volunteers, such as an occupational therapist for counseling and hair stylist for free cuts. Eventually, he’d like to have a place for a shower, washer and dryer, and other amenities, which also provide something most folks take for granted.

“It’s not about ‘we’re going to get you a house or a car,’” he clarifies. “They’re not ‘our project’; they’re human beings. We’re going to love them and offer them choices. That’s one thing the impoverished don’t have is choices. You have to eat when food is being given, be gone when curfews are over. We’re here to offer choices.”

One continuous hang-up Evans saw for those in need: finding employment. “A lot of these people don’t have IDs; they have criminal records and various other obstacles,” he explains.

That’s when Evans partnered with Tucker Kelly and Brandon Pitzen, founders of Hammocks for Hope. The fellas had their own vision for community impact: “Get you outdoors to bring the homeless in.”

Hammocks for Hope and the Hope Center have been working together for roughly two months now. While Evans supplies a location, Kelly and Pitzen provide training to folks who want to help make their hammocks and get paid to do it. At $15 per hammock, Evans says most proficient sewers can make one in an hour. Right now they have four sewing machines and five trained sewers working on Fridays.

“When you look at this,” Evans says and points to Aaron Johnson, who is carefully guiding blue material through a Singer machine, “you see they’re making hammocks. Well, I see they’re taking pride in something, they’re creating dignity, and rewiring their brain from what society has deemed them.”

Evans met Kelly and Pitzen after the two social entrepreneurs made tote bags for the Interfaith Refugee Ministry of Wilmington earlier in 2016. They were still in the stages of figuring out how their for-profit business would make a lasting impact on people’s lives.

“Are we helping refugees? Are we helping the homeless?” Kelly rhetorically asks. “What are we really doing? Then, out of the blue, Randy gets up with me.”

Kelly pauses to greet someone and show them where his machine is. Mary Baisden is also making her way to her station when she stops to talk to me.

“I’ve lived here for five years, and nobody wants to give me any work,” she tells. She points to Kelly. “And this is the only man who wants to give me money for doing anything . . . he put me to work.”

“Our goal is our story,” Kelly adds. “This is what’s going to change lives right here: providing hope. . . . We don’t care about your past. We care about today.”

Before meeting Evans and visiting his Hope Center, Kelly knew he wanted his hammock company to be more than business. Inspired by the likes of Toms and Half United, he wanted to give back in a meaningful and sustainable way.

“Because if I’m going to do something I’m going to do it to the fullest,” he says, “and this is the best way to provide jobs to people that are in need of hope.”

Kelly’s affinity for hammocks started about three years ago. He’s a camper, hiker and general outdoorsman who was particularly interested in finding the most lightweight and portable hammock. Kelly purchased an inexpensive hammock that seemingly met his needs, but he thought he could make it better.

After Kelly’s first prototypes were made, he soon started getting orders. He brought on Pitzen (also founder of Old Anchor Films and apparent sewing aficionado) by September of 2015 to help sew hammocks to meet holiday deadlines. “It was so early in the company that I told him, ‘I can’t pay you, but I can make you an owner of the company,’” Kelly remembers with a laugh. “He said, ‘I’m in.’”

Each hammock is handmade to order of Ripstop by the Roll fabric from Durham, NC, and all other materials used are made in the USA. “We make the lightest hammock on the market right now,” Kelly adds of the 13-ounce bundle he shows me. “That’s including the straps.”

They are marketing to folks who, like Kelly, want a portable hammock and don’t want to waste an ounce on excess. Using whoopie slings, which use weight tension for suspension, the nylon straps can be secured without the use of carabiners, metal hooks or even knots. The soft HyperD-diamond ripstop nylon they use is extra strong and durable, but even when (and if) it does sustain a hole, it won’t continue to rip. “The guy who makes our fabric actually earlier this year developed a double-diamond fabric,” Pitzen adds.

“It’s simple and you get your perfect lay,” Kelly continues. “That’s the thing with hammocks: You want find the perfect lay. You get the wrong lay, you’re gonna hurt your back—especially if you’re sleeping in it at night.”

Evans and company are looking to expand their partnership in 2017, including looking for real estate in downtown Wilmington. They hope to be in or near the Brooklyn Arts District, to expand and integrate programs with the community at large.

“A bigger space where we could have the hammocks being made [and] I could put a dozen showers in, washer and dryer, do a little coffee shop [to] sell coffee to the public, doctors offices, salons, hold weekly donation-based yoga, do a community garden,” Evans describes. “I’m looking for a warehouse, so the community can be integrated, and it doesn’t just feel like a day center for the ‘homeless.’”

Evans’ big picture includes changing perception to make lasting change. Even language can make a difference. Evans doesn’t use the word “homeless” because of social stigmas that come with it. “Unsheltered,” “displaced” or “transitional living” is—if not more appropriate—more productive.

“The words we use affect the way we think, which affects the way we view the world, which affects the way we act,” he explains. “It’s not ‘us’ and ‘them; it’s ‘we.’ To say ‘the homeless are making hammocks’ will touch a heart string; however, these are individuals that are experiencing poverty and getting trained for a job.”

Hope Hammocks are $125. (To give price perspective: The run-of-the-mill rope hammock in my backyard costs more and isn’t travel friendly—and probably won’t last as long either.) In addition to online sales, Evans hopes they start selling hammocks locally at Great Outdoor Provision and Whole Foods. In the meantime they’re focused on preparing for the holiday shopping season.


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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Philip Chryst

    September 21, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    What an amazing article. I am so amazed by what Randy Evans has done through The Hope Center. Thank you for your insightful article that conveys so well the heart beat of mission. May God continue to bless The Hope Center and Hammocks for Hope!

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