Head to East Speedway and North Wilmot Road and you can travel around the world.
There, at the United Nations Association Center, countries intermingle, their crafts displayed throughout, creating an atmosphere of different cultures and religions.
The center, at 6242 E. Speedway, has three paid staffers and about 50 volunteers. It sells crafts, textiles, clothing, jewelry and other treasures from around the world. Prices range from 50 cents to hundreds of dollars.
“Wherever possible we want it to be an item where the people who are making it are earning a living wage,” said Ruth Biedermann, the store manager and buyer.
Biedermann said she mainly tries to buy fair trade, which means the people who made the merchandise get the profits.
“So many of the people who make these items are women, and so by buying fair trade we are helping the standard of living of the women who make the items,” said Berry Silverman, the center’s assistant manager.
“We are able to help out the artisans to provide a market for their goods,” said Barbara Thompson, who has been volunteering at the center for three years.
The center is operated by the United Nations Association of Southern Arizona, a nonprofit organization that is a chapter of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, which in turn is a program of the United Nations Foundation.
Profits from the center go to UNICEF and the United Nations Association of Southern Arizona educational programs, Silverman said.
“UNICEF funds go to help women and children around the world. Very often they are countries where there is war or disease or famine,” Silverman said.
Money raised through UNICEF efforts goes toward things such as education, water and health projects. The Tucson center was founded in 1975 and has contributed $1.2 million to UNICEF, Biedermann said.
Right now the store is decorated for the holidays, with a large Christmas section in front featuring ornaments from Nepal, Vietnam, India, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand and China.
“It’s just an enormous range of countries,” Silverman said. “And, of course, each country may have a specific craft that applies.”
A carved soapstone Nativity set from Haiti is displayed next to a straw Nativity set from
Ecuador. The two are similar yet completely different. They are “the nativities of the world,” Silverman said.
The center sells specialty items from each country — fibrous paper handmade in Nepal, metal artwork from Haiti, telephone-wire baskets from South Africa, matryoshka (nesting) dolls from Russia and a teddy bear covered in alpaca fur from Peru.
The volunteers who run the store range in age from 16 to 91.
“It’s a tremendous contribution that they make, and we wouldn’t exist without them,” Silverman said.
Volunteering at the center is a lot of work because the results are less immediate than, say, serving food at a church soup kitchen, Silverman said. “I think it takes a different kind of dedication — working day in and day out for a concept.”
In addition to running the store, the United Nations Association of Southern Arizona holds educational programs to provide information about the United Nations and international topics, Biedermann said, including a free monthly lecture series that focuses on current events around the world.
People also stop in to donate money for specific projects and places.
“We have been sending a lot of funds to the Syrian refugees recently,” Silverman said, “and now we’re sending to the Philippines.”