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YOUME Clothing Turns Poverty Into (Re)Purpose Upcycling Clothing

Written By: Emily Torres
Photographed By: Josie Gonzales Upcycling Clothing

A seemingly simple encounter with a young boy donning tattered clothing in Uganda turned out to be one of the most important moments for social good entrepreneur, Lauren Wallis, and future communities in Africa to come. This brief interaction was actually the impetus and motivation behind Wallis’ YOUME Clothing, a San Diego-based nonprofit whose mission is to empower impoverished communities while connecting people around the globe to a bigger story—through a unique, collaborative clothing exchange model that fosters long-term, sustainable growth in at-risk locations. As the organization grows, so do the communities that come together to create a better future. 

Born in 2010 (and officially established as a charitable organization in 2012), YOUME invites school children in impoverished African communities to donate old, tattered clothing in exchange for new school uniforms. The donated pieces of clothing are cleaned and processed into patches, which are placed on branded apparel that is sold to provide funding for community-led projects in the children’s communities. Those projects address both immediate and long-term systematic needs, like schoolroom expansion, clean water well installation and repairs, garden builds, teacher training and solar panels. 

“My friend was living in Uganda and working with relief and aid organizations and forming relationships in the country,” said Wallis, co-founder and president of YOUME Clothing. “But, while there, he sensed this dependency growing on well-intentioned foreign aid. People were dropping off clothing, but community members weren’t invited into the process. We came up with the idea to meet the most immediate needs with school uniforms: a big barrier to education. In exchange for new uniforms, the kids would give up something old. They’re a part of the process. We take their old clothes and turn them into patches, which go on our branded apparel. Every piece of apparel has a unique, one-of-a-kind patch that ties you to a community in Africa.” 

YOUME Clothing works with partners like Enduring Communities and Voices Awake in Kenya, Uganda, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique to facilitate exchanges with approximately 200 children per year who swap out tattered clothing for new uniforms. From start to finish, the process invests back in the local community—at every level.  

“We work with a tailor to make the new uniforms in the local economy, giving back into the local area and country. If uniforms aren’t needed in the community, but say warm clothing is, we still purchase in-country,” explained Wallis. 

The clothing exchange is more than just local children from the community bringing their oldest and most tattered piece of clothing—it’s a celebration with music, dancing and a shared meal, just like any other party! The process begins with YOUME developing a partnership with leaders of local nonprofits, churches and NGOs. An exchange will be scheduled and then the process—and party—begins! 

No step towards community empowerment is left out: through a partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in San Diego, YOUME Clothing employs Somalian, Kenyan and Ethiopian women from the local San Diego refugee population. These women transform children’s old clothing into usable patches, which are sewn into one-of-a-kind YOUME products like shirts, sweatshirts and onesies. The proceeds from this unique apparel then go directly towards a variety of need-driven projects led and sustained by the local community and trusted partners. Upcycling Clothing

“We work with partners to fund projects that are needed most in that area,” said Wallis. “Recently, we repaired three water wells in Mozambique which gave about 1,500 people access to clean water.” Upcycling Clothing

YOUME Clothing currently offers men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, as well as African-made accessories like woven bags. Not only do the products contain a unique piece of someone’s story sewn into the fabric, but they are also created with eco-friendly, sustainable practices and locally-sourced materials.  Upcycling Clothing

“As a small nonprofit, we’ve been able to do so much, and it makes me excited to see what it could be with grant funding and a bigger staff,” said Wallis, looking forward at the direction of her organization.  Upcycling Clothing

With a simple encounter in Uganda that inspired the organization’s model and mission for connection and community, Wallis has stitched together a social good dream: a nonprofit that moves a step beyond a traditional aid organization—empowering all who are involved. 

YOUME Clothing
@youmeclothing