Unshattered: A Love Story
Story by Kymberly Breckenridge
Photograph by Dkol Photography
First word that pops into your head when you hear “addiction”—and be honest. Weak? Degenerate? Morally corrupt? Kelly Lyndgaard of the social enterprise Unshattered wants to smash the misconceptions of substance dependence and have the world understand that addiction is a series of events that can happen to any of us, regardless of your DNA. Kelly believes “in a lot of cases, it’s not that people are making bad decisions and behaving irresponsibly when in an addiction. Addictions are often the reaction and result of something that happened that was traumatizing.” While the rest of us see wasted potential in the struggling drug-addled young woman on the streets, Kelly sees desirable work traits of determination and creative problem-solving that is invaluable in the workplace.
Work skills are often thought to be obtained through schools or apprenticeship, rarely as developed out of necessity for survival. While countless members of our society live silently in the shadows, unvalued and dismissed, they are still developing transferrable skills needed desperately in today’s workplace. When Kelly Lyndgaard walked through the doors of the Walter Hoving Home in Garrison, she sensed raw talent in these young women and gave them a place to constructively channel their inner strengths. When asked what job skills the participants of Unshattered thought they had developed to survive a bad environment but would serve them well as businesswomen, they replied, “Sales and understanding customer needs, determination, time management, organization and follow-through, focus, quick thinking, creative problem-solving and social skills.” We can all agree that surviving the streets will challenge the intellect faster than merely showing up to a college class and taking notes. There is extreme value in a degree from hard knocks, and that should not be dismissed by potential employers. As one girl quipped, “If we put all the effort into a career that we were putting into getting high every day, we’d all be CEOs.”
Kelly Lyndgaard was a rising star in the executive level at IBM, proving herself both in the physics and engineering aspects of IT. She loved her career and reveled in the sensational training she was receiving from mentors and teachers across industries. But one fateful event at her church opened her eyes to an alternate way of contributing to society. Moved by the stories told by young women struggling with addiction at the Walter Hoving Home, Kelly gave her work notice and began to create a social business model that would alter the course of her life. Kelly threw herself off the ledge, as the young women in Hoving Home did, and learned to fly.
Walter Hoving was a former CEO of Tiffany when he decided to help John and Elsie Benton build a residential spiritually based home in 1967 on the banks of the river in Garrison, NY. Their mission, “rebuilding lives shattered by drugs and alcohol,” is now serving women ages 18 and over who have been involved in drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and other life-controlling problems. Their focus on education through their learning center’s curriculum has broken the addictions of thousands of women not only in Garrison but in additional homes in Las Vegas, NV, and Pasadena, CA. The homes offer the struggling women a place to live, healthy meals, daily classroom study, a variety of healthy extracurricular activities and a structured daily work program. It was in this work program that Kelly saw her chance to add to these women’s lives.
On that fateful day in church, Kelly asked a question that has (or should have) plagued us all, namely, “Am I doing all I can to help the community I live in?” Her answer lay in the back of her dusty closet in the form of her grandfather’s old coat. Kelly adored her grandfather and wondered what she could do to honor his memory through the fibers of the cloth. What she created was a simple tote that changed her life forever. Her mother joked, “Of course this is what you would end up doing in life—you’d make a purse out of any fabric you could find.”
In September 2013, armed with her grandfather’s memory slung over her shoulder, she walked into the Walter Hoving House and offered to help the women there discover their innate career abilities by establishing handbag production in the facility. Thanks to her training at IBM, Kelly was well versed in how to start a business, adopting a social business model as her guide. As Kelly explains, a socially minded business is one “that makes tangible money but for a real purpose other than to go into somebody’s pocket.” The Grameen Creative Lab, a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the social business model, maintains that the “business objective [of a social business model] will be to overcome poverty, or one or more problems (such as education, health, technology access and environment) which threaten people and society; not profit maximization” (from www.grameencreativelab.com).
Kelly’s goal her first year was to make $10,000 income while teaching these girls to make totes out of repurposed materials. When the dust settled at the end of their third year, Unshattered had earned the Walter Hoving Home a total net profit of $72,000. Kelly knew this was where God was directing her, and so she left her six-figure corporate job at IBM in 2015 and has been building Unshattered ever since. As Kelly explains to the girls, “We are asking the public to reward us any other way they would with their purchasing, and if you don’t show up with a good product, we will not have the chance of sharing our story.”
Kelly waxes poetic when talking about her program: “To make something out of old, broken pieces and breathing new life into them is a perfect representation of what is happening in these girls’ lives. They are broken pieces, feeling thrown out, abandoned, worthless, not beautiful.” Kelly knew that treating them as charity cases and throwing money at the problem would only be a Band-Aid for these women. Working a year at Unshattered gives these women invaluable work skills that sets them up for success the rest of their lives—“giving girls skills and confidence in having them create something on their own,” as Kelly Lyndgaard puts it.
Unshattered purses are created with Kintsugi in mind—the Japanese art form that recognizes the beauty in broken things. Specifically, this 500-year-old art of “golden joinery” restores a broken piece with a lacquer that is mixed with gold, silver or platinum. At Unshattered, a visible gold thread is woven into the purse as a visual reminder that things can be “more beautiful for having been broken,” says Lyndgaard; it is a practice that helps remind the recovering girls (and the public) that their future can still be beautiful and have value. Hidden inside the purse the maker has a secret message sewn into the interior of the bag as a blessing to the new owner. Kelly is immensely proud of the girls’ work. “Twice I’ve seen people purchase a bag and immediately transfer the contents of their Louis Vuitton purse to put in our creation.”
The ladies at Unshattered can customize any bag, often taking a fabric of sentimental value and talking to the customer about their needs to design a bag that honors the cloth and the client. In 2015, Unshattered created custom backpacks out of retired U.S. Army combat-uniform pants for the winners of West Point’s triathlon. There is a place on the production line for all the young women. “Some girls are phenomenal designers, while others can watch and translate the design into a process. Everyone is contributing to these stunning creations,” says Lyndgaard. Kelly’s gift of seeing past the obvious allows her to tap into what they’ve already mastered to teach these young women that everything on earth has a place and a purpose. And nothing, neither an old man’s coat nor a life, is to be thrown away.
The 16-member crew has doubled business every year for three years in a row, and they are still growing rapidly. Unshattered can be found on Etsy and their newly created e-commerce store. They will be partnering with the famous Woolrich Company to generate one-of-a-kind bags out of the company’s wool scrap pieces to be sold in SoHo, NY, and Boston. The company has grown so fast that Kelly is now looking to purchase a property that combines lodging for the young women with space for the production of bags; “someplace we can restore for our participants to work and live in a community committed to sobriety.” She has her eye on the abandoned Craig House in Beacon, NY, the very sanatorium Zelda Fitzgerald stayed in to recover from bouts of the early stages of schizophrenia. Anyone with information on how to make this dream a reality (or with information on a similar property) is urged to contact Unshattered to help them move forward with their invaluable work in our community.
Kelly believes that “there is an unnatural separation between business and social conscience. Our work is a way in which we can offer worship to God.” Kelly’s worship has led to a six-figure business that continues to grow, and takes society’s broken women and transforms them into valuable leaders armed with work and social skills. Kelly’s answer to JFK’s plea to “ask what you can do for your country” is a bag, filled with the hopes and dreams of struggling women who deserve a second chance at happiness and fulfilment. We can help Kelly’s mission to save lives by purchasing one of these unique bags and taking the time to listen to their story.