You might not be able to imagine a fashion designer sweating under the Arizona sun to build a straw bale house on the Hopi reservation. But that's precisely what Leonora Merkel, a technical designer for Eileen Fisher Inc. in Irvington, N.Y., spent one week doing in 2010: sanding wood, constructing the framework for the house, and stacking straw bales to make walls and such. The closest Merkel had ever come to similar work was building sets in school plays.
"Every day was something new and different and foreign to me," Merkel recalls. "It was a very difficult week in terms of the hard labor and the weather conditions. At night, it was freezing cold, and in the day it was excruciatingly hot."
The 10-person team, from Eileen Fisher and other companies participating in Clif Bar's In Good Company initiative, slept in tents set up on the desert sand, and were soothed to sleep by the howling of coyotes. They took turns cooking and cleaning.
Merkel learned to use a solar shower, pitch a tent, and use power tools. They also observed Native American ceremonies, learned about Hopi culture, and connected with members of the tribe, thanks to the nonprofit Red Feather Development Group and Kii' Nat Wan Lalwa, which oversaw the project.
Merkel says she came away from the experience with newfound confidence about her abilities and increased appreciation for her employer. "It taught me a lot about myself and what I'm physically and mentally capable of taking on, being able to put my fears aside," she says.
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