After Barbara Novak ’72 received an M.A. in bassoon performance from Southern Illinois University, she became second bassoonist in the Spokane Symphony. “I really got a chance to play everything from the great second bassoon parts to the great contra bassoon solos. I had a great time . . . . I think that the training I got in the orchestra here [Washington State University] was superb. It probably was the catalyst that . . . launched me into performing as a career.”
Novak’s life was changed, though, by the tragic death of her son, Steve, in a mine exploration accident.
“When my son died, something happened to me, and I couldn’t pick my horn up and play. If I hadn’t signed contracts I never would have played again. I continued to play for four years, and after four years it hadn’t changed, so I retired from the Symphony in 1999 after 35 years.”
Novak’s son had established a business called Far East Handicrafts, which Novak decided to continue operating. She now negotiates directly with craftspeople in Nepal, Laos, and Cambodia. The governments of these countries are sometimes very unstable, and the area can be dangerous for foreigners. She pays workers a wage that is fair but consistent with the economy in which they live.
Most of the workers were originally employed by her son. “They’re wonderful people,” Novak says. “We go to their homes for meals and watch their kids grow up. They’re wonderful artisans and craftsmen.” The craftsmen produce bags, purses, shirts, blouses, and some jewelry. The business is mainly wholesale, with a small retail outlet in Seattle’s Fremont district. “If it’s in Katmandu, you can probably find it in our shop,” says Novak.
Far East Handicrafts supports aid projects in the countries it does business in. “We sponsor a hill-tribe school. We provide supplies and things like that. We installed the first toilets the village had, and now we are giving scholarships for children to go to another village farther away. The other thing we do is sponsor an eye clinic. People walk for miles to have their cataracts removed. Cataracts are a big deal in Nepal because of the elevation. The clinics do free cataract surgery and eye care.”
Novak serves as a deacon in Spokane’s St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral. She finds her business philosophies blend perfectly with her faith. “I guess I look at the business and the aid projects we have currently as my ministry. There are other deacons in the cathedral, too, with various emphases. My focus is a global focus. If you want to join in this humanitarian effort, you can have a vote with your dollar. If you buy just 5 percent of your Xmas shopping at fair trade stores, you’re doing something.”