We Made This: A sewing program that creates bags and courage

We Made This is a sewing and employment training program offered to newly resettled refugee women at ECDC’s African Community Center (ACC) office in Denver, Colorado. The program’s mission is to unlock the creativity of refugee women through a multicultural sewing community by promoting leadership and building sustainable partnerships.

We Made This provides beginner and intermediate sewing training, where participants learn in-depth sewing skills on industrial sewing machines with which they create tote bags, placemats, table runners, laptop bags, and leather goods. While this program is structured around developing and strengthening sewing skills, participants also benefit from business experience and develop leadership and communication skills.

Students also attend Tea Time and other art classes, practicing self-expression through different art media. Tea Time is a cultural and conversational hour that strengthens both relationships between the women and English language skills pertaining to sewing and job training. In addition to fostering community and skills development, We Made This provides an opportunity for supplemental income by giving 55% of the sales back to the artisan.

ACC’s two full-time sewing instructors, Tin Tin Pyone and Florence Bilombile, accepting Women to Watch awards in Denver. They recognize outstanding women who foster leadership and create change within their communities, and as refugees themselves they also serve as inspiration to their students.

ACC’s two full-time sewing instructors, Tin Tin Pyone and Florence Bilombile, accepting Women to Watch awards in Denver. They recognize outstanding women who foster leadership and create change within their communities, and as refugees themselves they also serve as inspiration to their students.

For long-term sustainability, We Made This partners with Knotty Tie Company, which hires intermediate graduates for full-time sewing production and manufacturing work. Students come to the program via referrals from case managers, therapists, and career counselors. Many participants meet the requirements of state benefits, while some come purely based on interest or to build a network of friends and peers. For Mai Lor, a Laotian refugee, it was an opportunity to face a fear, one that eventually opened the door to many other opportunities.

Mai hesitated before shyly walking through the doorway of We Made This last September. Because she hated the sound, size, and strangers on the bus, she would not ride alone. Mai was afraid of getting lost and not being able to speak English. In the classroom, Mai met other women with whom she shared many similarities, despite their different cultures. She learned to sew through observation from her instructors. Four weeks into her training, Mai ran into the studio, threw her jacket on the floor and announced in broken English, “I ride bus…me, me, me!” pointing to herself proudly. Mai had taken the bus by herself that day.

By January, Mai’s world had changed immensely. She uses actions and words to communicate preferences and needs. She can introduce herself in English to all visitors and customers that come through the same doorway she was so fearful of walking through. The program’s hope is that every woman who participates in We Made This can find this degree of transformation, whatever that might be in her life.

We Made This video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDlVndcXbhw

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