Davidson resident Marisa Sellman, 47, gives her all for the poor people around the globe every day. “If you are doing what you’ve been called to do, it’s not work, it’s joy,” she said as she prepared for the one-year anniversary celebration this month.
Sellman is the founder and director of The Marketplace; a nonprofit, fair-trade business that sells goods made by people in the poorest countries around the globe. In 2010, Sellman was the director of finance at Grace Covenant Church in Cornelius and wanted to help poor people in Kenya.
She contacted women with Jacaranda Creations and started selling some of their goods on her own time. Her first show was at the Christmas in Davidson event in 2010. “We had three suitcases full of their products. In nine hours we sold $2,000, and I knew I was on to something,” said Sellman.
She continued to sell on her own until September of 2012, when the church allowed her to set up The Marketplace in its bookstore. Starting with only two groups in two countries, Sellman relies on church ministries to identify needs and work with the villagers to make them self-sufficient.
“It is relational evangelism,” said Sellman. “First we meet the physical need by empowering the people through employment and building relationships that lead to ministering to the people we have helped.”
By extending micro-loans and grants for equipment and other needs to help the businesses start up, Sellman has built a large network. She now represents 56 groups in 22 countries and continues to look for more opportunities.
In January 2014, Sellers took a 26,000-mile, 23-day trip to visit groups in Kenya, India, Cambodia and Thailand. Listening to the stories of how the jobs have saved some people from prostitution and begging and those who have found a religious faith has encouraged her to do more.
“They were all so happy. I want people to know that when they purchase a product, it truly changes someone’s life. And when I tell the buyers the story of the product, it connects them to the artisans,” she said.
She enforces that connection by taking pictures of the people with the items they have bought and posting them on her Facebook page for the artisans to see.
In July 2014, the business had outgrown the space at the church so it moved to its new location at the Oak Street Mill. Along with the move, the business was granted 501(c)(3) status. She became a paid employee of the business that month, but having only one full-time and one part-time employee besides herself, Sellman relies on the help from a core of 20 to 25 volunteers who help man the store and go to shows selling the wares.
Among those volunteers are her husband, Lou Sellman; daughter Kayley Sellman 22; and son Nicholas Sellman, 20. To celebrate their anniversary this year, they presented their new mobile store, The Rolling Shack.
Lou worked three weeks to fit the 2015 Ford 59 Ultimaster Step Van for the merchandise displays. Marisa said that the $55,000 van was fully funded by supporters of the business.
“I don’t like to call them customers,” she said, “I prefer to call them supporters. Americans have huge hearts to help, but if you don’t give them something viable to do, something that they can grasp, they don’t understand how to help.”
“If they know ‘I can buy a bag, and I can change someone’s life in Kenya’ they’re all in,” said Sellers. She projects that she will reach $500,000 in total sales by September. “My goal is to have a million dollars in sales each year. Just imagine how many people we would be able to help,” said Sellers.
Marty Price is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marty? Email him at email@example.com