Jerina Vincent: The Business of Making Community

Photo by C3 organization

“If by God’s grace someone shows me how to open up a nonprofit, I will go toward that.”

Jerina Vincent, owner of JNJ Craftworks in Verona, said the above in the middle of our interview. With everything that will be covered in this article, her drive to start a nonprofit is at the core of who she is; nearly everything earned from her work after paying for food, home, and family goes to help some facet of her community. And nearly every minute spared outside of work and family is spent helping schools, churches, and people.

Society often stresses that you live within your means, but Jerina is more focused on what her means should look like, not what they could look like. It’s something her father instilled in her. “He even tells me today, ‘You don’t take much. You are running a business. You charge what you want to give to the person who makes the goods, and then a little bit for you. Not much.’” Success to her is sustaining a lifestyle focused on being content with what she has.

There’s another adage that floats around in the business world: get busy growing or get busy dying (inspired by The Shawshank Redemption). Oftentimes, this is interpreted as financial or physical growth, but growth in community can be more far reaching, more rewarding, and easier to attain. The first step is deciding what branch of the community you want to reach out to. Most of the artwork Jerina has for sale on consignment in her store is crafted by local senior citizens. They’re the reason she chooses to stay open amidst the pandemic.

“I don’t have a lease here,” she says. “I can close my business during COVID-19 easily and go. But the reason I’m still here: I don’t want anyone to come and take back their products. Where would they go? … There’s too many people involved in this.”

Growing up in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where small, multigenerational housing is the norm, Jerina’s idea of the what role senior citizens play in society is a lot more integrated than I’m guessing many of us are used to. She says, “In India, we don’t have a senior center where they can go and do something. … So we take care of elders when they get old. That’s the way it goes. But [in the United States], it’s different. Living alone is the life.” This isn’t to say one lifestyle is better than the other, but these differences present their own challenges.

By incorporating pieces of senior-created craft and artwork throughout her displays at JNJ Craftworks, Jerina is promoting individual worth to those who might be living an otherwise lonely life. The decision to feature these artists is based on several bodies of research strongly suggesting that those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease experience less cognitive erosion when they have a high sense of purpose. This is also why Jerina keeps a coffee machine around for her customers. “Most of my customers are senior citizens. I talk to them, and they talk to me. They talk to me freely. They cry sometimes and say, ‘Oh, we didn’t talk. They didn’t call.’ That kind of thing. They feel alone.”

Photograph provided by C3 organization

Listening isn’t the only way Jerina helps her customers. “I always try to do more. Even if a customer comes in and asks me, ‘Can you suggest something for me because this is my budget, and I don’t have any more money.’ If they like a bigger thing, I’ll even give it to them. It’s okay because it’s nothing.” When someone enters her store feeling troubled or anxious, unless they leave feeling better about themselves, Jerina will question if she could’ve done more.

“It’s in my blood.” Jerina’s parents were often involved in nonprofit work. This isn’t quite the same as nonprofit work in the United States—more like proactive volunteerism. “My dad built a few of the south Indian churches, hospitals, and schools run by priests and sisters.” Her mom led the church choir and did a lot of cooking and jewelry design while running a plant nursery. In terms of who Jerina grew into, her parents have greatly inspired the shape of the mold.

Though her dad worked as a civil engineer, he didn’t make much income, as most of his work was for nonprofit organizations. Jerina and the rest of her family lived a very humble life. There was, however, one large expenditure Jerina will never forget. “When I signed up for college, my dad told me this is the only thing I can give you.” He paid for all of his daughters’ educations by selling his house.

Every year, Jerina finds some way to embody the compassionate nature of her parents and share in her good fortune, usually giving 10 percent of her annual sales to schools. Now, with COVID-19 hurting so many people, Jerina put together a concentrated local effort she calls the Giving Jar. “Most people are without jobs now. I don’t know what will happen during Christmastime for them or Thanksgiving, which is a big thing especially for elderly people and the kids. I cannot invite everybody to do something, but I can give a little bit from my sales.” As it says on her website, “Before Christmas, we will donate the collected funds to Badger Prairie Food Pantry or to someone you nominate to brighten someone’s holiday.”

Jerina’s dreams seem to rarely take the shape of waiting until the time is right several years down the road to invest in her neighbors and community. It’s about what she can do right now, and she believes she can do so much more for so many people if she gains the tools and knowledge needed to start a nonprofit in Wisconsin. Perhaps she could do more if she grew her business, but that’s not where her passion truly lies. “If anybody asks me, ‘Do you want a bigger store?’ No, I want to give back.”

You can learn more about JNJ Craftworks and the Giving Jar at shopjnj.myshopify.com .

Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson