We are always amazed to hear our student’s stories. Current student, Pam Hoffman, started taking classes after retiring from a career in engineering and cloud architecture at IBM. She is considering working towards a certificate. Pam spent some time in Haiti helping set up a sewing studio. Here’s a review of her adventure in her words.

The sewing school in Jacmel, Haiti, was created adjacent to the Children’s Hope Orphanage in 2012, after the 2010 earthquake left most people homeless and unemployed. There are an estimated 500,000 orphaned children. Haitian children cannot attend school unless they have school uniforms and no orphans and most families cannot afford the uniforms. The purpose of this trip was twofold: (1) provide school uniforms to orphans and poor children and (2) teach unemployed Haitian women how to sew school uniforms to earn money to support their families. Our focus was to teach employable skills and not give handouts. Pathfinder Mission was our local sponsor and we stayed at the mission house protected by two heavily armed guards and surrounded by ten foot high walls topped with barbed wires. It was very dangerous in this area of Haiti.

Pam Hoffman and Vickie Sherman developed all aspects of the sewing school and held fund-raisers in California to pay for 12 new sewing machines, all of the fabric and sewing supplies, and a generator (there is no electricity). Everything had to be brought into Jacmel in suitcases from America. There is no mail delivery in the country, and there are no fabric stores. They drafted the custom-designed school uniforms in 7 different sizes: girl’s blouse; girl’s jumper; boy’s shirt; and boy’s shorts. Samples of the finished boy’s and girl’s school uniforms are hanging on the wall. They also developed many hands-on sewing labs for practice and wrote detailed, highly illustrated sewing guides (partially in French) for the students.

The school’s sewing tables and cutting table were custom made by Haitian men in the woodworking vocational training program. The working conditions were difficult – 110 degree heat, high humidity, no electricity (we used a generator), no running water (old-fashioned outdoor hand pump), no bathrooms (only a primitive outhouse), and LOTS of bugs.

The Haitian women were so friendly and nice. We started and ended each day singing songs. All of the women spoke Creole, so we had two translators and we also spoke some French, which they understood. These were intelligent, hard-working women who have had very few opportunities and none of them had any sewing experience. Most of them were completely illiterate and were unable to differentiate letters on the sewing machines associated with various stitches (e.g. “C” = zigzag). About 75% of the women had never used a pair of scissors before, so they had to practice using that tool.

None of them had ever seen or used an iron, so more learning curve. Measuring fabric seams, aligning the pattern on the fabric grain, placement of top-stitching, and more proved difficult to teach since they hadn’t had even elementary math and had never used a ruler before. We had to invent creative ways to teach on the fly. For example, for 1/8”, we would show them the ruler and count one, two notches over and hold up two fingers. It worked. On the first day, we noticed that the students fell asleep mid-day. It was not because they were bored – they were simply hungry and didn’t have enough energy. So, we bought lunch for the women every day and they were very perky the rest of the day. They were so enthusiastic that, after quickly eating, most of the women worked straight through the lunch break. They all saved half of their lunch to bring home to share with their children.

On graduation day, every woman finished their first girl’s blouse and proudly held it up. It was fun to see their faces when they realized that all of the flat pieces of fabric actually ended up being a blouse. They were all smiles and proud of their significant accomplishments.

At the end of two weeks, we presented the women with certificates and had a graduation ceremony with cupcakes and punch. They had no idea what to do with the cupcakes because they’d never seen one before. They watched as we bit into ours, and then they started eating them. Of course, they took all of the extras back to their children. They were so proud of their accomplishments and that they were becoming employable seamstresses.

Before I left for Jacmel, I obtained the approximate measurements/dress sizes for all of the girls in the orphanage and made them dresses to wear to church on Sundays. Each little girl was presented her dress. There are many opportunities to use your sewing skills for community projects, both local and abroad. Consider sharing your sewing skills with those in need. Several sewing opportunities include:

Thank you so much for sharing with us, Pam. We can’t wait to hear where your next sewing adventure might take you and who might be helped by it!

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