For Good: African fair-trade marketplace benefits Lutz couple's mission

After their 18-year-old son Sean died of a drug overdose in 2007, Mike and Deb Gilbert of Lutz channeled their grief into doing something meaningful in the world.

What they chose to do took their family – which included three older children – and a wide circle of friends by surprise.

The couple sold their sprawling ranch home in north central Hillsborough County and most of their worldly goods and moved to Uganda, more than 8,000 miles away, a country ravaged by poverty, civil wars, disease and political turmoil brought upon by rebel regimes. 

It wasn’t a safe or comfortable choice. But at least for Mike Gilbert, it was the realization of a long-held dream.

A former real estate investor and day trader, he once ran one of the country’s largest alternative fuel companies. He also was the founder of the Christian Emergency Response Force, which trained and organized disaster response teams. He always knew in his heart that he would one day devote his energies to Christian mission work. 

For Deb, who had a background in marking and communications, not so much. She preferred air conditioning, hated bugs and snakes, and didn’t like to travel very much. She was comfortable in the life she had helped build for her family.

But the Gilberts, whose strong faith didn’t waver in the wake of their son’s death, were united in their determination to not let their son’s death be in vain. And after much prayer, they believed Uganda was where God wanted them to go – even though they had never visited there.

Creating a healthy economic community

They launched One City Ministries, a nonprofit organization that aims to create a healthy economic community through training and resources, rather than handouts. Its main focus is on a 23-acre compound currently under construction called the Light Village – a self-sustaining model community that will include a school, church and orphanage. A tilapia farm will contribute food and waste will create clean burning alternative fuels.

Deb Gilbert says support from the Tampa Bay area community has provided the “spark and ongoing fuel” to keep the ministry going through donations, thousands of hours in volunteer time, in-kind services and products, prayer and encouragement. 

“It’s enabled us to build a strong foundation….to move forward with our ongoing ministry objectives,” she says. Those goals include helping the native people with economic, educational and spiritual development. “Ultimately, we want to end the cycle of poverty.

“You know the old saying: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for the rest of his life.”

The Gilberts will once again turn to their local support base here this weekend with a fair-trade marketplace festival to benefit their mission work and the African TrAID project, which provides village participants woodworking skills, family workshops and other training to help them become more self-sufficient.

It takes place 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Dec. 5 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Dec. 6 at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center, 14301 Nine Eagles Dr., Tampa. It will feature art and handcrafts from more than 200 East African artisans to help provide sustainable income opportunities for families living in the most challenging region of the world.

Among the items for sale: Jewelry, hand-carved wood animals, fabric bags, jute purses, computer cases, Christmas tree ornaments, drums, traditional Mama dolls, puzzles and stuffed animals. All are handmade from natural raw materials.

The event will also feature a bounce house for kids, a Santa photo session from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, and an open workout and fitness competition.

Motivated by love and loss

Gilbert says there are two purposes for the marketplace events. They provide a model of economic empowerment for the Africans, and help pay for some of the ministry’s administrative overhead. Other funds raised go back into hiring trainers and teachers.

The crafts are also sold through One City Ministries website. According to Gilbert, the wages earned by the artisans have paid for homes, medical care, new businesses and training – some of whom are literally touching money for the first time in their lives.

“If you give them a foundation from which to grow and thrive, it creates a snowball effect,” she says. “The artist now has money to purchase food and other items in the marketplace, allowing the other market owners to earn money that they will spend in other places, like paying school fees and clinic visits.”

The Gilberts, married 32 years, believe they’ve made a difference in their adopted country. 

“Without a doubt,” Deb Gilbert says. “We’ve seen hope and empowerment. We’ve seen people being able to rise out of the proverbial ashes to a full realization of self-sufficiency and understanding their value. They know that they can, and then they demonstrate that to others.”

Memories of Sean’s descent into addiction and eventual death won’t ever completely go away. So they focus on the positive: how he fought injustices and helped others, and how he stood up for the oppressed. His same spirit lives on in the work they do in Africa.

“Our love and loss keeps us moving forward, his mom says. “Turning our pain into Kingdom gain keeps us from falling into the deep black hole that we could live if we allowed ourselves to lose hope.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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