If you’ve ever lost one of your favorite earrings, but couldn’t bear to throw the match away, Denisse Montalvan has a solution for you. The 33-year old LA-based public relations professional founded a nonprofit called The Orphaned Earring that creates and sells one-of-a-kind bracelets using beads and stones from earrings that have been “orphaned”. However, the organization’s mission is anything but frivolous: the money she raises from selling the jewelry pays for arts and crafts, holiday parties and school supplies for children at four orphanages throughout Latin America.
It all started back in 2008 when Montalvan took a trip to Nicaragua—the country where she lived from ages 10 to 17—to visit and bring Christmas gifts to an orphanage she’d heard about through her church.
“I was shocked by how young these children were,” Montalvan recalled. “I thought: Despite how terrible their lives had been, how can they be so sweet and caring and loving? I can’t believe they’re so happy with so little.”
Money was tight, but Montalvan decided to make a standing commitment to do something each month to help the children she met. Out of her own pocket, she started sending the orphanage money to buy art supplies.
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OLD SKILLS FOR A NEW PROJECT
As time went on, Montalvan expanded her efforts to raise money for additional orphanages after hearing about them through friends and her church. In 2011, she launched The Orphaned Earring website, where she blogs and sells her wares. Her organization now raises money for orphanages in Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia.
At the end of the year, the funds help pay for Christmas parties at the orphanages, each of which are specifically tailored to their location. For example, in Nicaragua this December, the money raised paid for the creation of a pop-up carnival, complete with hot dog, cotton candy and popcorn stands, as well as a bounce house. In Mexico, the party included a puppet show, face painting and a soccer tournament. Montalvan also helps collect donated gifts in the home country or in LA to send abroad.
Making jewelry has been a longstanding fundraising project of Montalvan’s. When she was struggling to make ends meet as an undergraduate student at California State University, Montalvan learned to balance a variety of jobs to pay the bills, from nannying to recycling aluminum cans. When Montalvan found out a coworker knew how to make jewelry, she asked the woman to show her how to make pieces and where to shop for beads.
Before long, Montalvan was whipping up bracelets and donning her creations anywhere she knew potential buyers would see them: birthday parties, family gatherings and work events. Whenever she got a compliment, she had a sales pitch ready. She used the money she earned from selling jewelry to help pay her tuition.
“Now when I go out I make sure I wear The Orphaned Earring bracelets,” Montalvan said. “I think one time I wore about seven and went to a PR event and I sold them on the spot.”
FROM TRASH TO TREASURE
When Montalvan started her project, she worked with orphaned earrings in her own jewelry box. But as she expanded she asked others to donate their mismatched earrings. Now Montalvan accepts all kinds of jewelry donations and reuses the beads, in addition to those she purchases.
“In a way it’s like a recycling program,” she said. “About 10% of what I get is not usable. I rarely throw anything away.”
Any jewelry components she can’t use in an orphaned earring bracelet she puts in a Mason jar, which she gives to others who want to take up a collection of used or mismatched jewelry at their workplaces. When the jars are full, Montalvan picks them up.
“I’m passionate about encouraging other people to volunteer,” she says. “If they do it once, they can feel the difference and…be happier.”
Montalvan also hosts Orphaned Earring jewelry-making parties to raise money for her California nonprofit (she’s working to attain federal nonprofit status). She asks party-goers to bring an earring to the party, where she stocks a station with beads and other jewelry-making materials. At the end of the night the maker can buy the bracelet for $7 or donate it back to The Orphaned Earring.
Though she works full-time in public relations, Montalvan dedicates a lot of time to her project. Often she works 12 hours at her day job, then comes home and works until the early morning on The Orphaned Earring, writing blog posts and making and packaging jewelry.
Any money she makes from sponsored blog posts goes back to the nonprofit. She also maintains channels on Facebook and Twitter to post photos of bracelets, update followers about The Orphaned Earring happenings and encourage others to volunteer,.
“I really feel this is the least I can do to give back,” Montalvan says. “What I want to do is not only raise money but inspire other people to volunteer.”
She follows a simple motto: Do whatever you want to do, but just do good.