Through Kind Karma Company, Laurinda Lee-Retter helps the at-risk transitioning youth in Toronto to rise above their circumstances and build their dreams.
by Aisiri Amin
A strong believer of ‘what goes around, comes around’, Laurinda Lee-Retter wanted to start something that will spread positivity while creating social impact. With that idea in mind, she started the Kind Karma Company which employs at-risk transitioning and homeless youths in Toronto to create handcrafted quality jewellery.
Understanding the mental health issues these youths might be struggling with, having gone through the same herself, Laurinda wanted to make the workplace a flexible, positive and safe place for them. Not only does she teach them hands-on skills that boost their self-confidence but also encourages them to dream and have goals, something many of them might have given up on.
We spoke to Laurinda Lee-Retter about starting Kind Karma, the impact she hopes to make and much more.
INKLINE: On your website, you have mentioned that Kind Karma was started as a way to counter the negativity in the world through hope and kindness. Tell us more about that. What inspired you to bring about that change?
Laurinda Lee-Retter: 2016 was a very challenging year for me. I just couldn’t find my way and didn’t know how. Also, there was so much going on in the world. I remember seeing memes at the end of the year like “2016 hit me like…” and there would be a guy getting run over by a garbage can. I felt like it was a universal feeling that 2016 was a bad year.
So, I thought, why don’t we put good vibes out there and maybe it will bring about a good change. It can be simple. We could start by helping a couple of people better their lives and you don’t know what they will go on to achieve, and that’s how Kind Karma was born. It was the whole feeling of just wanting to do good and hopefully that good will continue to spread throughout communities around the world and start a movement of positivity and kindness.
I: Was ethical fashion something you were always passionate about? I ask because we live in a world where many still don’t understand the importance of ethical fashion.
L: Absolutely. So, I actually wasn’t that aware of it until I got involved in this. For me, I just wanted to do good and have a positive impact. And then through kind of the people I met, I learned more, about the negative impacts of the fashion industry on the environment and it really opened my eyes.
It also made me analyse a lot of the habits that I grew up with. My parents had immigrated to Canada when I was growing up. So, for them, it was always about saving money and I grew up with the mentality of ‘let’s buy the cheapest thing’.
Looking at it now, I understand that the t-shirt might be cheap but it’s important to know where it comes from, how it’s made, how much it will cost the environment. Now I am trying to make more people aware of ethical fashion and have more conversations about it.
Moreover, because of my journey, I think I can understand both aspects of it- why people opt for certain things before they are aware of the environmental impact as well as the process of understanding, being more aware and the change in the mindset.
I: You employ at-risk homeless and transitioning youths. How did that happen?
L: When we think of Canada we don’t think of a poverty-stricken nation. We have a very fortunate lifestyle here, but there are some people who fall through the cracks. And, when kids grow up seeing their parents living on the street, living below the poverty line, they think that’s how they will also continue to live. So I thought what if we disrupted that cycle and helped these youths.
Many times, they do have ambitions but they don’t have the means to achieve them because of the environment they are born in. I thought if I could just help, even if it’s just one person, at a pivotal point in their lives when they could either go down a negative path or a positive path and give them a little push in the right direction.
I think with Kind Karma, it’s so much easier because it’s more of art therapy based employment model. They come in, they make jewellery and it’s a safe space. They don’t feel pressurised to interact with a whole bunch of people. If they are having a bad day, it’s fine, they just focus on making jewellery.
I: You mention on your site how young people dealing with trauma and mental health issues find it challenging to work in a traditional employment situation. Tell us how you address this through Kind Karma.
L: These kids have been through so much in their lives already and they are most likely dealing with their own challenges, and if they don’t have the educational pedigree for the high office jobs, their options often narrow down to retail and services. And, it might not be the best environment for them.
I think with Kind Karma it’s so much easier, it is more of an art therapy-based employment model. They come in, they make jewellery, and it’s a safe space. They don’t feel pressurised to interact with a whole bunch of people. If they are having a bad day, it is fine, they can just focus on making jewellery. Moreover, if they are feeling anxious, it calms them down.
It also boosts their confidence, we have had youth who have stayed with us longer than they have held any other jobs in the past. If they feel like they can hold a job, instead of feeling like they failed because they couldn’t stay at a job for more than a couple of months, they can see that they can work and they are capable of these things.
I: Could you tell us about how some of the youths have been able to pursue individual goals through Kind Karma?
L: One of the youths, just got her own place which is amazing! We are also helping her out with furniture and hopefully, she is gonna go back to school later on in the year and take some course.
We encourage the youths to come up with a goal they are working towards and we give proceeds back to support them and help them achieve their goals so that they feel like they have accomplished something which elevates their self-esteem. It can be anything—a big goal like attending university or a smaller goal like getting a driver’s license.
I: What has been the most uplifting part of this journey?
L: Definitely the youth I work with. It is always so humbling to work with them, to hear their stories and what they have been through and yet see them not letting it weigh them do and have these dreams about what they want to accomplish in life. It’s heartwarming and so rewarding to be a part of their journey, whether long term or even short term.
I: If you could, one piece of advice for the people who want to bring about change but feel like it will be only a drop in the ocean.
L: I would say go for it because you never realise how big a ripple that one drop can create. I have realised that it’s not about affecting as many as possible. It’s about helping whoever walks through the door, believing in them and giving them the push. Even if you help just one person, you don’t know who they are going to impact and what they can do.
We don’t have to take on the world, we can start with one person, and if that person helps three other people, it’s kind of magnifying the support and eventually the ripples get to be so big that something huge can happen. So never be daunted by how much has to be changed and just focus on what you can change.
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).