The bags made of second chances

SECOND CHANCES. The products of the social enterprise Yvette's Bags and Beads Collection employs are made my inmates and ex-inmates of the Davao City Jail.

All photos by Franz Lopez/Rappler

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Christina's sewing machine has been whirring the whole day. Her eyes are fixed on the needle poking a white woven straw of bag. Some hundreds of them are to be shipped to Manila at 6. It is now 4 pm, and the boss sits behind her, reminding everyone that the clock is ticking.

"Don't wait 'till my eyebrows meet!" the boss raised her voice yet in a sweet manner. It's a usual scene at the factory where Christina works.

The "ber" months are the peak season for Yvette's Bags and Beads Collection. Apart from shipments for Manila, others will take a long haul to Japan, US, and Italy.

The bags are made of straw, with designs architected by Yvette Marie Celi Punzalan, who calls herself an accidental businesswoman – a plain girl who makes crafts since dalaga days.

But the workers at her factory like Christina are no ordinary women.

A mother of 5, Christina was sentenced to prison for illegal drug possession. She was in jail for 10 years, where waiting for her trial became an excruciating thing.

Sometimes, when her case is set to be heard, there was no judge. When the judge was present, there was no fiscal. When there was a fiscal, her lawyer wasn't around.

A second chance

It was that kind of reality, she said, that made her think her life was at the dead end – until she met Yvette, the woman who found herself teaching female inmates at the Davao City Jail how to weave bags.

"I like her because she's frank. And she tells it in our face when she does not like something,"  Christina told Rappler in an interview.

She remembers of the day she and other inmates met Yvette who taught them that a string of plastic used to tie carton boxes – could become fashion bags.

OWNER. The bags are made of straw, with designs architected by Yvette Marie Celi Punzala, who calls herself an accidental businesswoman u2013 a plain girl who makes crafts since dalaga days.

Christina, who admittedly had become addicted to alcohol and drugs in her "past" life, became one of those inmates tapped by Yvette to weave the material for the bags. And what they earned would help the inmates send their children to school.

"Their mother is in jail but she is productive. She can still perform her role as a mother," Punzalan said.

Their output are then transported to the factory not too far from the jail, where the workers are ex-inmates like Venus Espiritu who was caught selling drugs, and was later set free after 11 years and 4 months.

"What many people don’t know is that life after prison is hard. Where do we go? Who will accept us?" Espiritu said. 

Social enterprise

What started as a hobby became a source of livelihood for women who wondered what their lives would be after spending a long time in jail.

Yet the woman behind this social enterprise said it is simply a hobby that turned into a business. More than a decade ago, when her bag-making business saw a rise in orders, an idea popped in her mind upon learning that her father's friend works at the Bureau of Jail Management. She asked: what can I do to help?

"I'm not a businesswoman. I'm just a plain girl who makes crafts since dalaga," Punzalan said. 

WOVEN BAGS. The 'ber' months are the peak season for Yvetteu2019s Bags and Beads Collection. Their shipments reach as far as Japan, US, and Italy.

Her mother supported her, and told her to pursue the training.

"It's not about the business. It's about the friendship I started with them," she added. 

The former inmates who now work at her factory calls the Davao City Jail a village, where those sent there are simply people in vacation, and their cells are cottages.

Ma'am Yvette, according to Espiritu, was instrumental to that realization. She believes that people who once broke laws deserve a second chance.

"I thought that when I was imprisoned, it was the end of everything," she said. 

Punzalan's bag business is also partner with a Lumad community that supplies her with stocks for a Manila client who exports the products to US, Europe, and Japan.

Her products are often promoted by the Department of Trade and Industry for her good practices with communities in Mindanao – an edge that she would rather not use to brag about.

"I want that people would buy the products because I'm doing it with a nice creation," Punzalan said. The advocacy is what she tells later to the clients once they’ve closed the transaction.

But according to Yvette Punzalan, she will always find it difficult to hide from the spotlight, as her bags not only highlight her passion for her hobby. They also speak a powerful message – that in second chances there is hope. – Rappler.com 

If you want to avail of Yvette's products, email y_celi@yahoo.com or contact them at 0927660 0447.