March is National Women’s History Month and this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District was fortunate to host Dr. Patricia Hutton, the founder of the Sew Refugee Economic Development Initiative (REDI), Buffalo, NY for a lunch and learn program. The mission of Sew REDI Buffalo is to use the medium of sewing to provide social inclusion, education and economic empowerment to members of Buffalo's refugee community.
“Our clients gain marketable skills as well as a place to come together and share the experience of making something from start to finish,” Said Dr. Hutton, who is also a Canisius College Economics Professor.
The program has assisted Buffalo-area refugees from Bhutan/Nepal, Burma, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Syria through teaching sewing skills, marketing, sales and packaging.
Sew REDI started in 2011 as a Canisius College student-led, Enactus team project. Enactus is a world-wide organization of student teams dedicated to taking entrepreneurial action to transform lives and create a better world. The idea was to teach basic sewing skills along with basic business tools to provide individuals with the building blocks to become self-sufficient.
“Within the refugee community you have individuals who are considered to have more of an advantage than others because they have an education and can speak English. I wanted to help out a particularly disadvantaged portion within the community of refugees: women with children and older adults. These are the people who are less likely to acquire English and more likely to be socially isolated,” Dr. Hutton explained. “Think about if you were to come to America and your children take care of you because they speak English. There is a shift in family dynamics. Our program helps the adult members of the family to achieve dignity and self-respect and contribute again to their families.”
The Sew REDI project started with five women and five sewing machines. To date, they have served about 250 clients. The clients spend their first 10 weeks learning to sew, which provides them with basic sewing skills that they can use at home. After that, they are provided their own sewing machine and have the option to continue to come in and learn more. This learning includes the tools needed for economic empowerment through development, marketing and selling of products that Sew REDI helps their clients to sell at their Etsy site, as well as at craft fairs. Every product includes the story behind the client who created it. Larger Sew REDI products are branded with a leather medallion stamped with a Buffalo.
“Our clients learn machine operation, sewing skills, teaching skills, product development and construction, upholstery, marketing, sales and packaging. We provide the materials so our clients never have to spend a dime. Essentially, we front what our clients need to create a product. When it sells, Sew REDI takes out what it has put into it and the client keeps the remainder,” said Dr. Hutton, as she spoke about a recent success story.
Shree Tamang, from Nepal, has been learning upholstery skills with the goal of opening a business that specializes in custom upholstery for boats.
“We are always looking for opportunities that will help our clients become economically independent. Boats are an often overlooked market when it comes to custom sewing. Through one of our contacts, Shree has qualified for an individual development account. What that means is when he saves $1000 in the account – funded by his sewing – he will receive a $4000 grant to help him to start a sewing business,” she said.
Meeting each Saturday in donated space, Sew REDI is staffed entirely by volunteer sewing instructors. Two volunteers who are in their 70’s travel over an hour each way to volunteer each Saturday.
“The husband repairs the sewing machines, and the wife helps teach our clients. He repairs every machine free of charge – which is an incredible savings for our clients.” Dr. Hutton added, “I confess: I do not know how to sew. However, I am perfectly capable of cutting fabric and putting together project kits for our clients to use. There is never down time on a Saturday! It is noisy and lively in the Sew REDI space and time passes much too quickly!”
In spite of the many languages being spoken on Saturdays, Sew REDI does have a need to use formal interpreters to overcome language barriers. Dr. Hutton explained that there is always somewhere in the room who has learned some English and can help a newcomer, and that many clients bring their children to interpret because their children pick up English so quickly.
“And we do a lot of pointing when we are teaching how to use the machine,” she said. “It works!”
Future goals for the program are for clients to become proficient enough sewers and fluent enough in English that they will be able to teach sewing lessons to western New Yorkers. Dr. Hutton also envisions her clients taking over the Etsy website.
“For sustainability purposes, we want our clients to be fully engaged and learn all aspects of the business because we want them in it for the long term,” said Dr. Hutton.
Sew REDI is about more than sewing.
“We give our clients what they need and give them the freedom to become self-sufficient.” Dr. Hutton added, “Our clients have a safe place to practice English and enhance their communication skills. They share information and tips about settling into the local communities and in the end, the project helps them to acclimate to their new lives in Buffalo.”
For more information about the Sew REDI Program please visit http://www.sewredibuffalo.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/SewREDIBuffalo/.