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Davis, California

Monday, May 20, 2024

Living life outside the box

The thought of dropping everything, hopping on a plane and moving to a new country is exciting to most people, but few actually get to live it. Yet UC Davis alumna Quinn Vandenberg and her boyfriend Jonathon Button dropped their comfortable lifestyles and moved to Nicaragua — and with a good cause to boot.

Vandenberg and Button created Life Out of the Box (LOOTB), a concept about living your dreams and also a business that sells Nicaraguan handmade products to customers all over the world. For every purchase, a child is given school supplies and the duo helps one of Central America’s poorest economies.

“Life Out of the Box is about pursuing your dreams and doing what you love by stepping out of the typical box and making it happen no matter what,” Vandenberg said in an email interview. “It’s also about giving back to the world while making your dreams come true. Life Out of the Box wants to not only inspire people in the first world to always go after their dreams, but we want to give kids in the third world the tools to be able to do the same as well.”

Vandenberg majored in textile and clothing before graduating from UC Davis in 2009. She then began sponsorship and business development for Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, an annual international antique car show on the Pebble Beach golf course. Button also held a job at an import/export booking company in San Francisco.

But having stable jobs and a life together wasn’t enough for them. The pair then began researching and brainstorming about how they could live their dreams. In May 2012, Vandenberg and Button packed a backpack each and flew to Nicaragua.

“We have always wanted to start a business since we were kids, so the idea of creating a business of our own was one that had been in the works for a while,” Vandenberg said. “After lots of brainstorming, we decided that our ideal business to start would be one that integrates giving back into the finances from the very beginning. We wanted to search for unique handmade products that would appeal to people in the States and be able to give back to every new country we visited. So we decided that for every handmade product we would sell in the States, we would give back an educational product to that country.”

Vandenberg also said that the couple’s ideal lives consisted of traveling and learning about new cultures. Starting a business with the ability to travel ultimately brought the pair to Nicaragua.

Vandenberg said that she and Button did not want to borrow money from family or take out a loan, but they also knew they would not be making money during the startup phase of the company. Thus, they needed to move to a place with a low cost of living.

“We learned that the average person lives off of $2 a day in Nicaragua as it is the second-poorest country in Central America,” Vandenberg said.

Vandenberg and Button work with nonprofit organizations to figure out which schools require the most help. LOOTB currently only sells handmade bracelets, but has plans to expand product variety. Every bracelet sold corresponds with school supplies given to a child. Vandenberg said that a $15 bracelet usually buys a notebook and pencil pack, while a $30 bracelet can buy a child a backpack. Every product is numbered on the website, which allows customers to see which child’s education they helped.

“The reaction from the children is our favorite part of the business,” Button said in an email interview. “Initially they are confused, because receiving a gift from a stranger is a unique concept to them. Once we show them their options of school supplies that they can pick from, they get extremely excited and typically take a while to pick out the one that represents them. After that, it is always different. Some dance while others jump up and down hugging their gift. Others give high fives or run to go get their siblings.”

Button said that the experience of giving the school supplies to children is so wonderful that he and Vandenberg do their best to portray the feeling to the customer through photos, descriptions of the moment and who the child is.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to give children tools to succeed, and we want the person who bought the bracelet that made it possible to feel it,” Button said.

LOOTB has gained traction both online and offline. The company has been published on multiple blogs, and the website has scores of comments about people being inspired. The couple gets customers from all over the world, including Europe, Australia and other parts of Central America.

The website also caught the attention of Dustin Stiffler, a third-year college student from New York, who was studying abroad in Central America. Stiffler has bought four bracelets from LOOTB and has met Vandenberg and Button.

“I was motivated to purchase bracelets from Quinn and Jon, because during my study-abroad experience, I experienced the poverty that they are helping to alleviate,” Stiffler said in an email. “I learned of the colorful history of Nicaragua, and of the many social issues that exist there. Though it might not be a large amount of help they are providing to the people of Nicaragua, helping to provide children with the tools to expand their education and imagination will hopefully create positive social change on a local level.”

LOOTB also caught the attention of the producers of “House Hunters International” on HGTV. Last summer, they flew to Nicaragua and filmed Vandenberg and Button reenacting their move. Vandenberg said that they don’t know when the show will air yet, but it is currently in post-editing.

Since the online store launched a month and a half ago, LOOTB has sold over 200 bracelets and, therefore, has given school supplies to over 200 children.

“I totally dig Life Out of the Box,” Stiffler said. “I feel that LOOTB is helping to address a major social issue in Nicaragua, as well as creates economic investment in the people and businesses of Nicaragua.”

To learn more about LOOTB, visit their website at www.lifeoutofthebox.com, and to purchase bracelets, visit www.lootb.com.

JOYCE BERTHELSEN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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