COLUMBIA — One of Christen Edmonds' fondest memories is returning to Swaziland on a mission trip in July 2011 to find that village kids still knew her name.
"They remembered me when I came back," Edmonds said. "When I got there, all the kids were like, 'Christen!' and I was so overwhelmed."
She first met the villagers on a Heart for Africa mission trip she took with her family the previous summer. She had been on mission trips before, including one to Mexico, but never to Africa.
"It was just an eye-opening experience," she said, "because they had nothing."
It was a hard transition when she returned to the U.S. because everyone "seemed spoiled," she said.
She decided to return, but she didn't have the money. To fund her first Heart for Africa trip, she had made yo-yo hair bows to sell at MU, eventually distributing them through the bookstore.
Then, she took her mother's suggestion and began to create stretchy spandex headbands. The idea quickly developed into Bandiez Couture, a business with outlets in more than a dozen boutiques across Missouri, Mississippi, Illinois and Nevada.
The headbands come in different colors, patterns and fabrics, from lace to Dri-FIT floral and animal prints. Lace Bandiez cost $9.95 and Dri-FIT ones cost $7.95.
Edmonds, 22, also sells the headbands to MU sororities and donates a portion of the profits to their philanthropies.
"I want to help everyone else because literally the whole Greek community has helped me, so I'm trying to find a way to ultimately give back," she said.
In November, she began selling lace and cotton ear warmers in boutiques such as Elly's Couture in Columbia and at Headband Hut kiosks in St. Louis malls.
Edmonds has also made head wraps for a woman with leukemia in her hometown, Cape Girardeau, and is working on a Dri-FIT bandana for children at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. She hopes to donate a percentage of the profit to cancer research.
A row of sewing machines and piles of fabric line a table in her grandmother's basement, now the workroom for Bandiez Couture. A few friends pitch in to help sew the headbands, but for the most part, it is a family-run production.
"I think it's successful because it's a family operation," said Sarah Barr, a family friend. "Whatever anybody in that family does, they all take it on and put their whole heart into it because they're such a close group of people."
Her grandmother and her mother help make the headbands, and Edmonds shoots the photos for her website. Her father, Chris, is the web designer, and her brother, Devon, helps with shipping.
"I love working with my mom and dad; it's been special," said Edmonds, who is on the marketing track of textile and apparel management at MU. "Especially my grandma — she's always got lots of fun stories to tell when we're sewing."
An eye-opening experience
The family is also involved with Heart for Africa and is gearing up to help Edmonds return to Swaziland for the third time this summer.
Heart for Africa is a Christian nonprofit organization that works to provide care, resources and education to Swaziland children through mission trips, child sponsorships and other fundraisers. The goal is to create a sustainable environment where the Swazi people can support themselves.
In the past five years, more than 5,000 people have traveled to Africa through the 11-day program, according to the Heart for Africa website.
Many volunteers work at Project Canaan, a 2,500-acre development with a chapel, medical center, home for babies, garden, dairy and fish farm.
Heart for Africa headquarters, originally located in Atlanta, recently moved to Cape Girardeau because the town has been so involved in the organization. This allowed Edmonds and her family to get more involved.
Heart for Africa also works to spread awareness and provide education about AIDS, one of the main causes of death in Swaziland.
"There were a few kids who just died throughout the week," Edmonds said. "I didn't realize how AIDS is just tearing that country apart."
She said she wasn't expecting the level of poverty she discovered in the country.
"It blew my mind to see them having to walk five to 10 miles every day just to go to school," Edmonds said. "But they would only go because they were getting fed."
Yet, what surprised her most was the Swazi people's positive outlook on life.
"Their attitudes were just amazing," Edmonds said. "They were so happy even though kids were literally dying in front of our eyes. Whenever someone passed away, they would praise God that they had a life to live."
One reason she wants to return is to see Safiso, a 17-year-old Swazi boy she sponsors. Safiso acts as a parent to his two little brothers.
"I want to keep going back and seeing him," she said. "I really miss him; he's a good kid."
Staying in touch is important to Edmonds, who forms connections wherever she goes, Barr said.
"She has these relationships that she's not willing to give up despite the distance," Barr said. "She makes such a huge impact on your life initially that you don't forget her, and you want to keep her involved."
Religious upbringing promotes philanthropy
Growing up, Edmonds' mother, Daphne, would quote Ecclesiastes 9:10, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."
Her Methodist upbringing contributed to Edmonds' passion for lending a helping hand and making a difference.
"It meant a lot to grow spiritually with our children because it says in the Bible, 'If you do not teach them as they're a child, they'll never know the way,' and that's the foundation we as parents need to give them," Daphne Edmonds said.
Her daughter's faith fosters her philanthropy and her mission trips.
Christen Edmonds said going to Swaziland with Heart for Africa gave her a chance to build her relationship with God.
"I'm a religious person, and it felt like God was working in my life, especially surrounded by such thankful people," she said.
Ideas for the future
One day in the basement workroom, Daphne Edmonds proposed a game-changing idea: Employ the women in Swaziland to make the headbands.
"My mom, the funny thing about her is, she'll just say something like it's no big deal, like it could happen no matter what," Christen Edmonds said. "She just dreams so big."
Heart for Africa hopes to have an artisan center in place by next summer. Here, Christen Edmonds hopes they could hire the "hard-working women in Swaziland."
If this idea comes to fruition, her signature tag would say "made in Swaziland," bringing her back to where she started.
"It's such a simple thing to do, but we could really impact their lives," Christen Edmonds said. "It's just the most amazing feeling knowing that you're helping someone in need."