While his fellow Hoosiers go gift shopping in the falling snow, Luke Wright will spend December selling items that promote running water.
Wright’s craft studio/retail store in Warsaw, known as MudLove, specializes in pottery, bracelets, necklaces and other handmade creations. But there’s a heart behind the art: 20 percent of all profits go to Water for Good, a Winona Lake-based organization that drills fresh-water wells in the impoverished Central African Republic. As Wright explains, “We want our products to be a tool for putting love into action.”
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the state, the entire inventory of Amerie Boutique supports charitable causes near and far. A cotton sweater contributes to fair wages
for disadvantaged women in Peru. A backpack repurposes scrap leather from India while offering enhanced opportunities to local artisans. A bracelet provides funding and job training for the residents of an addiction recovery program in Kentucky. “Our slogan is, ‘Shop with a purpose,’” says owner Gina Mullis, 34, of Evansville.
In this season of giving, Indiana businesses like MudLove and Amerie exemplify the spirit of giving back. They hope to stir the humanitarian instincts of shoppers by offering them more charitable bang for their buck.
So what’s the meaning of MudLove? Wright, 33, who felt a divine calling to use his art for the benefit of others, sought a name that would literally and figuratively symbolize his mission. ”Clay without water is dust,” he says, “and the same is true for us.”
His path from college student to business owner was more haphazard than choreographed. A pre-pharmacy major at Indiana Wesleyan University, he was doodling idly in biology class one day when an epiphany struck. Wright, who had dabbled in art since childhood, suddenly realized how much he missed the creative process.
That recognition would lead him to try to improve the lives of people nearly 7,000 miles away – but first he had to refocus his own life. “I was leading a fairly destructive lifestyle,” Wright says. “But I spent my last two or three semesters in the ceramic studio as much as I could. That was where I found my peace and my joy and my passion.”
Mullis, of Amerie (pronounced AM-er-ie), had already found her passion when a life-changing event rocked her world. Having spent six years teaching middle school English and coaching cheerleading, she relished the opportunity to guide and educate the young students in her care.
Then one morning she woke up to a strange tingling in her arms, and by week’s end she had lost feeling in her hands and feet. Mullis spent the next five days receiving steroid infusions of up to 12 straight hours, which alleviated the numbness. But that didn’t answer the bigger question of what had caused it in the first place.
Several months of medical tests yielded the chilling diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, an incurable, unpredictable and often incapacitating disease of the central nervous system. MS is not well understood, so patients can only wonder about the future symptoms, severity and progression of their disease.
Mullis decided to stop teaching, but she resolved not to let MS rule her life. A friend suggested that the stylish educator open a clothing store, which appealed to her – kind of. “Something was missing,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to just sell clothes. I was coming from teaching, so it made sense to continue doing something where I could give to others.”
Her answer was Amerie, whose name is a combination of “amity” (friendship) and “reverie” (a state of dreamy meditation). After compiling a lengthy list of possible monikers, Mullis settled on Amerie “because the ‘A’ pops up first on searches.”
Wright knew little about business when he began selling his own creations. “But I had clay and I had ideas, and I was excited about clean water,” he says, noting that his family had attended church with Water for Good founder Jim Hocking. “He was fed up with people dying [from contaminated water], and I loved his story.”
Wright first set up shop in a Winona Lake garage, and using an antique alphabet stamp set inherited from his grandmother, he created ceramic bracelets bearing affirmative messages such as “hope,” “faith” and “love.” Although he now disparages those early efforts as “pretty ugly,” the $1 bracelets found a following, attracting not only repeat customers, but purchases of five, 10 and other multiples at a time.
He founded MudLove a year later, in 2009, and in the ensuing near-decade has raised $450,000 for clean water. His shop gained unexpected national attention in 2016 when Warsaw native Ben Higgins, who appeared on Season 20 of the reality TV show “The Bachelor,” visited MudLove during a hometown promotional stop and wound up wearing a “hope” bracelet around his wrist in all 12 episodes.
A Washington Post story about the “electric-blue string bracelet with a small clay plate” generated additional buzz, prompting a collaborative effort on behalf of Higgins’ favorite charity, Humanity and Hope United Foundation, which funds projects for the poor in Honduras. Higgins agreed to publicize the effort, and Wright agreed to donate half the proceeds of “hope” bracelet sales, which amounted to about $60,000.
Wright supports local charities, too: The original garage in Winona Lake now hosts a “give back gift shop” called Belove (be-LOVE), featuring the wares of both MudLove and wife Whitney’s handmade jewelry business, Bel Kai. A homeless shelter, a battered women’s shelter and a nonprofit art studio have received donations from Belove, whose jewelry line includes everything from handmade necklaces and earrings to custom pieces sporting song lyrics and company logos.
Amerie, which turned 4 years old in November, began with five charitable brands and now handles 80, stocking products from 15 to 20 brands at a time. A common label is “fair trade,” meaning wages and working conditions adhere to accepted guidelines.
Mullis is in the process of relocating her business from Newburgh to an Evansville storefront. Before that, she was reaping about 70 percent of her revenue from the shop and the other 30 percent online. Internet sales have skyrocketed during the transition, which would lead some business owners to consider operating online exclusively.
But the bricks-and-mortar boutique is more than just a retail space to Mullis, says her mother, Tina Bowman of Indianapolis. “She has to have that interaction,” explains Bowman, who worked for 26 years at Indiana Electric Cooperatives. “She struggles financially, physically and emotionally, but this is what keeps her going.”
Mullis acknowledges that Amerie is therapy for her – a positive pushback against a disease that leaves many patients debilitated and despondent – and she’d rather give back than give up. She has yet to take a salary from her business and works a second job as a student advisor for an Indiana digital school system.
Still, every day at the boutique gives the former teacher a chance to continue educating. “There’s so much more meaning than just buying a shirt when you can hear the story behind it,” she says. “It’s not just shopping anymore – you’re part of an experience.”
by Brian D. Smith, a freelance journalist from Greenwood, Indiana.
122 S. Buffalo St.
Warsaw, IN 46580
804 Park Ave.
Winona Lake, IN 46590
Visit www.mudlove.com/apps/locations to see more retailers.
Partners with Water for Good so each purchased product provides one week of clean water to someone in the Central African Republic.
Based in Evansville and available online
Supports a variety of non-profit organizations and carries brands that give back.