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Bagmaker to pair on Myanmar orphanage

January 3, 2019

Vera Bradley is partnering with one of its overseas suppliers to build a new orphanage for 2,500 children living in Yangon, Myanmar.

The building will replace an existing orphanage, which is structurally unsound, company spokeswoman Holly Ryan said.

The project will include new bedrooms, restrooms, play areas, furniture and supplies for the children, who are ages 4 to 14.

A nearby private school the boys and girls attend is in good shape and won’t be replaced, she said.

The orphanage was chosen after Vera Bradley officials toured several similar facilities to choose the one with the greatest need, Ryan said. The company routinely supports nonprofits, including 40 in northeast Indiana, in the communities where it operates, she said.

It’s too early in the process to estimate final costs. Company officials are interviewing contractors and defining the project’s scope.

“You don’t want to rush the process and work with the wrong people,” Ryan said.

Vera Bradley, which employs about 2,500, will split costs 50-50 with its Myanmar supplier, where workers assemble and sew Vera Bradley travel bags.

The south Asian country, formerly known as Burma, is in the midst of a civil war, with many families living in poverty, according to the head of a nonprofit that runs a school there.

Tim Clark, executive director of the Myanmar Foundation for Analytic Education, said the cost to build an orphanage in Myanmar will be “significantly lower” than building the same structure in the U.S. He is not involved with Vera Bradley or this investment.

Clark, who has visited the country numerous times, described Myanmar cities as busy and crowded day and night. Rural areas include jungles and remote, isolated villages.

“Life could be very basic,” he said. “Not all the villages have electricity, for example.”

In Vera Bradley’s early days, after founders Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and Patricia Miller stopped cutting fabric in their own basement, local Burmese refugees living in Fort Wayne were among those hired to sew the company’s floral cotton handbags and accessories.

Now, the majority of the company’s products are made in China. But Vera Bradley officials are working to reduce reliance on one country, especially in the face of U.S. tariffs on goods produced in China, Ryan said.

The company now works with suppliers in Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia as it draws down dependence on China.

Clark, who runs the nonprofit education foundation, praised Vera Bradley officials’ decision.

“It’s a heartwarming story,” he said of the donation. “What they’re doing is a good thing. ... It’s very much needed.”

sslater@jg.net

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