Selling T-shirts for Orphans: Mike Mitchell, The Global Orphan Project

This is Post 3 of 4 telling the stories of staff members at The Global Orphan Project. You can read the first post, which tells the story of The GO Project’s founders, Mike and Beth Fox, here, or the second post about Adrien Lewis, the director of The GO Project’s U.S. orphan care division, here.

Mike Mitchell sells T-shirts. He has been selling them for 30 years, and unlike many of his co-workers, his job description didn’t change much when he joined The Global Orphan Project. Now, however, the T-shirts, pajamas, scarves, and sandals he sells help to provide living wages for 80 Haitian mothers, fathers, and caretakers through The GO Exchange.

Mike Mitchell GO Exchange

When Mike started college at the University of Kansas, he already had a strong passion for entrepreneurship and began looking for opportunities to use that passion. By the end of his freshman year, he had found an opportunity to sell apparel to student groups on campus.

“It was incredible,” he said. “It was the easiest thing ever. I felt like God reached down and said, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do.’”

During his sophomore year, Mike brought in a partner and began to hire sales representatives at other colleges. Mike’s future wife, Betsy, joined the company also, as an artist and designer, and by the end of his senior year, their business was bringing in $2 million a year. When they graduated, the small sales opportunity of four years before had become a full-fledged business that Mike would continue building for the next 25 years.

Mike, his wife Betsy, and their 3 kids

Mike, his wife Betsy, and their 3 kids

But as Mike approached middle-age, he began to have a strong sense God was calling him to do something else. The problem was that he didn’t know what that something was.

In 2008, Mike’s company sold, and he had the choice to stay or to leave. Within the space of about a day, he decided to leave.

“I was absolutely determined that I wanted to do something else, that I wanted to do something to serve the Lord. I had this overriding sense that I needed to do something that would leave a more indelible mark.”

So, Mike left his company…and proceeded to spend a miserable year searching for the something else God had for him. Though he had hoped to make the plunge directly into a more ministry-oriented job, nothing worked out.

As it happened, that was the year the market crashed, and his old company suffered a number of setbacks. A year after Mike left, they offered him a chance to come back, and he accepted. For the next three years, he helped build his company back up, getting it ready to sell again.

During those three years, Mike also took his first trip to Haiti through The GO Project. He visited several sewing centers while he was there and learned about how The GO Project was helping create jobs for caretakers to sew school uniforms. Many students couldn’t afford their own uniforms, so uniforms were paid for by people overseas before being donated back to the local Haitian church so that students could use them.

“I was enamored with the idea they were getting involved with textiles…and my heart just raced when I was around the kids,” Mike remembered.

Mike Mitchell Haiti trip

Eventually, The GO Project offered Mike a leadership position in the school uniform initiative. Feeling as though this would be selling donations rather than an actual product, Mike countered with an offer of his own. Instead of asking donors to buy uniforms, Mike wanted to develop a new line of The GO Project products that could be created in Haiti and sold in the United States.

By the time Mike was ready to sell his company again in 2011, The GO Project was also ready to start a new line of products, and so Mike came on board as the director of The GO Exchange, the only “orphan-owned” business in the world.

Mike joined The GO Project in October 2011, and as he looked ahead to the Christmas season, he decided to make pajamas as Christmas presents for The GO Exchange’s first line of products. Now known as GO Jammies, these pajamas sold more than 5,000 pairs that first Christmas.

“Everybody seemed to really get excited about the idea they could bless children and provide help to the community without it being a handout.”

About 80% of the kids in The GO Project’s care are “economic orphans,” meaning that a living parent was not financially able to care for his or her kids and decided the only way to save them was to abandon them.

“The idea [of The GO Exchange] was to catch some of these single moms on a razor’s edge and give them a vocational opportunity and to break the chain of the apparel industry’s devastatingly low wage rates by providing a living wage,” Mike said.

Since that first Christmas, The GO Exchange has evolved into an entire line of products, including T-shirts, tank tops, sweatshirts, scarves, hand bags, jewelry, and aprons. Mike’s personal goal is for every GO Exchange customer to walk away feeling great not only about the cause but about the purchase. “We don’t want people to do business with us simply because of the cause, but because they love our quality product and service levels,” he emphasized.

Switching from the corporate to the non-profit world has been an adjustment for Mike, but he loves the environment and being able to start every Monday morning by praying with his co-workers. Selling products means more to him now too, because he knows the people who will be affected if the product isn’t sold.

GO Exchange workers

“Before, it was a financial burden – now, it is a human burden,” he explained. “Now, if I lay awake at night, I worry about Gladys in Uganda who irons every scarf and wants my assurance that the job isn’t going to end.” Ultimately, he hopes that the GO Exchange will become the engine that funds The GO Project’s orphan care.

Mike Mitchell still sells T-shirts, but they are no longer just pieces of clothing. They are messages and missions for buyers, food and clothing for orphans, and dignity and hope for caretakers.

Have a question, comment, or encouragement for Mike? Click here. To see the needs he has listed as prayer requests, click here. To give to The GO Project, click here, or to shop at The GO Exchange, click here.

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