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Hastings graduate launches charitable apparel business

Three months ago, Donald Mann, a 2008 graduate of Hastings High School, had a life-changing experience. He had just spent some time in Guatemala building houses and distributing backpacks and food to children in need.

"It was one of those experiences you can't find words to describe," Mann said.

It's an experience he'll get to repeat, if his new business does as well as he hopes. Early this year, Mann joined his friends, Sioux Falls, S.D., natives Josh DeWitt, Isaac Van Essen and Andrew DeVaney in launching a new socially responsible company that not only provides its customers with quality apparel products but also turns profits first toward helping the less fortunate. It's called WinGive, and Mann is hoping it becomes a major apparel brand.

On March 26, Mann joined DeWitt in Guatemala to see just what sort of conditions the people there lived in and what things they really had a need for. One thing they found a need for was backpacks. In Guatemala, children are required to have a backpack in order to attend school, because the investment in school books is too high to allow them to get damaged or ruined due to lack of protection, Mann explained. Children there often walk one to two miles to school.

"It's really hard for kids to ask their parents for backpacks because they're struggling to put food on the table," he added.

On the week-long trip, WinGive built five aluminum-sided houses, handed out bags of food to families and purchased backpacks from Guatemalan merchants for the children there. It was the first "bag drop."

"It was awesome to see the smiles come to life," Mann said.

Since he has returned to the states, Mann has been working on designing a new WinGive backpack to send to the children.

The WinGive model works two ways. Customers buy products for themselves from WinGive, but for every product purchased, WinGive sends a backpack and school kit to a child in need or a week's worth of food to a family, with the choice left to the purchaser. For now, only T-shirts are available for sale, but the product list will grow.

The focus on education comes from the idea that education will be key to success for many people in impoverished areas. The people there are smart, Mann said, and better access to education will allow them to develop their country and culture themselves. Along with that, children educated today will be better able to provide for their children later, Mann said.

Global and local

Although WinGive is starting out addressing needs in Guatemala and Tanzania, the company is setting its sights on local, national and global giving opportunities.

"There's a huge need in America as well," Mann said.

In July, they'll hold their first reservation run - dropping off backpacks, food and supplies in some of the poorest counties in the U.S. - five of which are in South Dakota, where Mann is attending college.

While children don't have to have a backpack in America to go to school, WinGive believes that it's still important.

"Think about carrying books without backpacks," Mann said.

Lacking a backpack, students may feel out of place among other students; those who walk to school may not want to carry their books. Carrying books deters children from going to school, Mann said.

Giving first

One question people are quick to ask WinGive is why they decided to set up a business instead of a nonprofit organization. The answer is simply sustainability, Mann said. Especially in the U.S., consumers are always buying things. The WinGive model allows people to buy the things they want and need while backing a charitable cause at the same time, he explained. It's a model that has already proven successful for one entrepreneur, the founder of TOMS shoes.

Although other businesses measure success by their profit margins, WinGive is different.

"Our success is going to be measured by how much we give back," Mann said.

Seeking help

Although WinGive has started selling some products and is moving forward with backpack designs, Mann and his associates are hoping they can get some financial help with their launch. The program to kick start the business asks supporters to pledge a donation to help get the company on its feet. Pledgers get rewards based on the amount of their pledge, and if WinGive doesn't meet its $15,000 goal, no payment will be expected.

Pledgers will be the first customers to receive WinGive branded products.

A lifelong pursuit

Since getting involved in WinGive, Mann is confident he's found a lifelong calling.

"This is definitely something I aspire to do in my life," he said of service leadership.

A senior at the University of Sioux Falls, S.D., Mann is getting ready to graduate soon. He's already got a full-time job offer as an account manager for a financial company, and this summer he'll be attending football camps in the hopes of extending his football career with a CFL, AFL, NFL or Division I team.

He is a field goal kicker and has two years of collegiate eligibility remaining. If he were to receive a scholarship offer from a Division I school, he would attend that school to earn his master's degree.

Even with all of that going on, he's still focused on helping WinGive succeed.

"I feel that this is the right path for me," he said.