10 questions with Delta Ryan of the Take Heart Project

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This piece is part of our LALtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.

Delta Ryan is the executive and founder of the Take Heart Project — a nonprofit 501c3 based in Lakeland. Her business advocates for orphans and widows in Kenya + operates a fair trade store downtown that carries items from all over the world, as well as via local artisans.

We asked Delta 10 questions about her journey internationally, what drew her to Kenya, and what she hopes to do next.

Q: What brought you to Lakeland, and what made you open a storefront here?

A: I’ve been in Lakeland since I was one. I graduated high school, went to the University of Florida, and later graduated as a physician assistant. The first 22 years of my career were spent in the emergency room.

I thought it [Take Heart] would be a thrift store. On a trip to Kenya, we were at a gift shop, and Michelle Johnson picked up a pair of earrings that said: “local artisans made them with fair trade principles.” It intrigued us. That began our journey to what fair trade was, what it meant, what it represented, and we loved it.

Q: Was there one defining moment in your life that inspired you to take this journey? What drew you to Kenya?

A: I think my whole life, I always would feel like, “Okay, that person needs to be represented, or that’s an injustice.” I took a trip in 2012 to Kenya in 2012, and two things happened; the first was that there was a widow that hung herself. And that experience, I never could shake — looking into the eyes of her children. I also lived in an orphanage of teenage girls, and I thought orphans were just little children. As girls aged out around the world, trafficking, child marriage, suicide, and prostitution, were off the charts.

Q: Can you talk to us about the fair trade bit of the business?

A: Fair trade means it’s made mainly by artisans in the Third World — you sit down directly with an artisan group and come up with a fair wage. The trade is giving them a fair sum of money for what you’re getting in return in a safe environment. They get the money they earned and don’t wait for us to sell it on this side. I have vetted it extensively because it makes a difference in women’s lives, especially around the world.

Q: Name local(s) you’re inspired by.

A: My mother would probably be my biggest influence. I was adopted when I was two days old. In the 1950s, as a single woman, she got on a ship over to Liberia, West Africa, then went deep into the jungle and ran a leprosy colony. At 45 years old, she became a physician assistant, so I followed her path.

Julie Townsend was very helpful with my story and guided me through the process, walking me through the market to the storefront. We started looking for vacancies, and then [the current storefront] opened, which was perfect.

Q: Are there any other local businesses that support a cause you have your eye on?

A: We love being on the strip with Top Buttons and Scout & Tag. I think the generosity of Publix and the Jenkins family also adds a lot to Lakeland.

Q: Do you ever anticipate expanding your work beyond your existing sphere of influence?

A: I dream of having a coffee shop and fairtrade store, but the next 10 years will be focused on a school. We found that most of them [teenagers] have missed a lot of school because of poverty, so soon, we’ll have the capacity to help so many more young kids.

Q: What’s something that every Lakelander should know about?

A: I want them to know about fairtrade and what is happening worldwide. Everybody can’t run off to Africa and leave their job because who will run the ER and teach our children, but we can all buy fairtrade and shop local.

Q: In 10 years, what changes do you hope to see in Lakeland?

A: I’m excited to see downtown continue to develop and would love to see Lakeland become a sister city [with Kenya]. That’s kind of my dream. Lakeland is better by knowing what’s happening in other parts of the world.

Q: What are three ways people can support your work both in Lakeland and Kenya?

A: Come down to the market and the store during the week and buy fairtrade. We are in our early phases of fundraising for the school, so I would love to come and speak and get out and share the story. We also always need donations for students.

Q: Is there anything else that you wanted to say?

A: I can’t say enough about Michelle Johnson and Catapult. We have also brought on more staff, like my daughter, Heather. We’re a mother-daughter duo.