Life is a series of thousands of Tiny Miracles
one child, one miracle
Tiny Miracles launched in 2010 with a mission to break the poverty cycle in the impoverished Pardeshi community in the red-light district of Mumbai – the so-called ‘Untouchables’ of Indian society. Since then our ambition has grown exponentially, but our story began years before, with just one moment, one child, one miracle.
meet Laurien Meuter
In 2006 I was working for ABN AMRO Bank in Mumbai as an expat, and in the weekends I would volunteer at a day care centre for homeless and drug-addicted children. I bonded especially with a 6-year-old boy named Kiran, who had simply stepped onto the wrong train and ended up in the big city without a family, home, or any way to find his way back. We used to just chat and play games every Saturday, until one day he never turned up.
I searched all night for him, behind the train station and in every dark corner of the neighbourhood, until in the end I had to accept that what his friends assumed was right: that he’d gone to the station looking for drugs and would never come back.
But in that defining moment realised I could never accept that a child should face this fate, no matter what train they got on or where they were born.
Although Tiny Miracles came about several years later, this was the moment when I knew I had to find a way to help even just one child avoid Kiran’s fate.
the road we’ve travelled
“A tree starts with a seed”
In 2008 a severe accident led to some forced time off from work, and after initial recovery gave mind space to think about life and what truly mattered to her and made her genuinely happy. Spending time and learning from and listening to the dreams of the street children back in Mumbai was on top of her list.
Throughout her slow but determined recovery, Laurien researched communities in Mumbai most in need. A community living in the middle of the extremely dangerous red light area caught her attention. She booked a ticket and off she went, immersing herself among the rats, prostitutes, disease, and destitution; by the end of her trip she had written her dream plan for helping this community lift themselves out of poverty and to become members of the middle class within 10 years.
Laurien brought her plan back to Amsterdam and in a fortuitous meeting, presented it to local retail entrepreneur who wrote her a blank check within 10 minutes.
In 2010 the Tiny Miracles Foundation was officially established.
“You do not stumble over a mountain, but you do over a stone”
With an initial focus on girls’ education, by this time she were sending 40 girls to school. However, Laurien soon realized that many of these girls were being pulled out of school by their parents, who didn’t see the value of educating girls, and that even the girls who were attending were not getting much value out of it, because they were tired and hungry.
Clearly the problem was deeper than just education, and after much analysis Laurien and her partners developed the 5-pillar approach to eliminating poverty: Education, Awareness, Healthcare, Income Generation, Happiness.
And so the scope of Tiny Miracles began to broaden, to include awareness workshops on topics such as healthy living and money management as well as regular visits from a doctor. But knowing that income generation was a critical way to unlock so many of these issues, Laurien searched for ways to create employment for the community, who are traditionally basket weavers earning less than 1$ per day. It was then that she reached out to her cousin Pepe Heykoop, a designer fresh out of Design Academy in Eindhoven, asking him to design something that could be produced by the Pardeshis.
“A known mistake is better than an unknown truth”
Throughout the following two years Pepe developed several designs and tested them in production, the first of which was a premium calfskin lampshade. Not only was this very complicated to produce, but when the first 100 lampshades were produced and shipped to Amsterdam, they were full of mold because we hadn’t added any silica. After a few more trials and many (many) errors, he landed on the simple, beautiful paper vases which could be easily folded by the employees and flat-packed shipped… the same vases that can be found in museum shops around the world today.
The first Tiny Miracles workshop was opened in 2012 in the local temple due to its space and central place within the community. It turned out to be filled with rats, filth, and local passers-by who were continually stealing the electricity, so a new production workshop was opened that was cleaner, lighter, and importantly, kept the rain out during monsoon season.
In 2013 Pepe attended the prestigious IMM Design Show in Cologne, and the vases were an enormous hit… we won the IMM Interior Innovation Award! When one buyer asked if we could produce 15,000 for him by next month, we knew we were onto something big.
“One and one sometimes make eleven”
Having settled into the new workshop and with so many lessons learnt, we began to make huge strides in our production process. A ‘Prik Klok’ was installed (which everyone loved!), as well as AC, internet, and a smart board. A new group working model encouraged the workers to check and perfect each other’s work, increasing production capacity by 10x! It was amazing to see the women begin collaborate together, develop a sense of community and to acknowledge and enjoy the freedom of being allowed to leave home because they were earning money.
It was also during that time that we introduced mandatory bank accounts for all women – and organizing a private session with a bank manager on how bank accounts actually work as none had ever even been inside a bank before.
By the end of 2014 we had over 80 people employed, sending over 100 kids to school… and we started to see how the 5-pillar model could create real, long-term improvements in the lives of the Pardeshi community.
“Fate and self-help share equally in shaping our destiny”
With the production and sales of the paper vases humming, we began to focus on shifting the communities toward self-reliance, equipping them with the capabilities and self-confidence to take their future in their own hands. The Foundation now funds the first two years of work with a community, including curative health, youth education, and awareness and skills training for parents. Over the following eight years our financial support decreases to zero, as parents gain employment and become able to pay for these services themselves.
All women save, with bank accounts in their childrens’ names so that their husbands cannot access the money; some have even started investing in small apartments outside Mumbai and renting them out for stable monthly income. Widowed women are allowed to remarry, where previously they were cast out of the community. We have our first university graduate (!), and the next generation of 15 girls dream of working at a big corporation like Unilever or a bank.
Today Tiny Miracles paper vases can be found today in over 300 museum and design stores, across 30 countries around the world. With over 250 people employed, our Tiny Miracles program is helping more than 1500 people across three communities in Mumbai.
We continue to spend significant time with the Pardeshis, listening to their needs and finetuning our approach and guidelines for helping impoverished communities around the world to break their own poverty cycle, become self-reliant, and flourish. With this knowledge, and the support of so many who generously invest their time and money, we aim to reach 30 communities within the next 5 years.
meet the Community
Where the Pardeshi’s live, cry, laugh and now dream