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The Sewing Room

The Sewing Room at my high school has been locked for ten years. In the room are 18 pedal-driven Butterfly Sewing Machines. They need small repairs: cleaning and oiling, new belts and bobbins, otherwise they are good, sturdy machines that have just gone unused for way too long. Although the room has been shuttered, termites moved in and built tall mud sculptures. Mold murals decorate the walls. The roof has holes in it, but that’s true of most of the classrooms at the school. It would take just a little effort and a small amount of money to fix it up.

Yet, I hesitated jumping into this project. Was anyone else at the school interested in waking up this sleeping beauty?

I asked my faithful Art Club if they would like to learn to sew. They all said Yes! I asked how could we raise money to repair the machines? They came back with a plan to sell herb tea at the market. While the idea was doable it had a very small return. Herb tea sells for about 15 cents a bag—and most everyone has the same herbs growing in their backyards. Even if sales at the market were brisk, I calculated it would take over a year to raise just $200. But if I wrote a grant we could get the Sewing Room up and running in three months—classes could begin after Khmer New Year in April with the new semester.

However, there was another hesitation. Garment factories. I didn’t want to open the door to a career in $3 a day sweatshop. I had to think this through.

My friend and cohort Kru Chenda is a librarian at the high school. She and her sister also have a small seamstress shop at the local market. They are skilled tailors who make fancy wedding gowns and tailored trousers, as well as shifts from cotton sarongs for me. Sewing is a life skill; something useful one should know how to do. With their newfound skills students would be able to sew clothes and other items for their families. Most importantly, students could see that with their own hands they can make something real—something for themselves and others. Knowing how to sew does not mean you must work in a factory.

A well-thought out curriculum will be the key to The Sewing Room’s success. Beyond basic sewing skills, boys and girls could make and sell handcrafted items for the tourist trade. Talented seamstresses might eventually set up their own shops. We will create a Sewing Class curriculum that not only teaches sewing, but other skills like organization, goal setting, small business management, and accounting. (Yeah, I said it: Accounting—sister to Accountable.) But first we had to get the sewing machines repaired and the room fixed up.

I launched the grant. Then shared an American 4-H website with lots of good ideas for basic sewing projects with my cohort Kru Chenda. Next time we met, she had a detailed plan of sewing projects for the entire semester! I must say it’s really fun to work with a counterpart who takes suggestions and runs with them. (But does not run with scissors.) We now meet once a week in the soon-to-be renovated Sewing Room to make plans. She teaches me the words in Khmer. I teach her planning concepts in English. Besides the obvious outcome of a clean classroom with working sewing machines, students will soon have the benefit of seeing how ideas can grow from dreams into reality.

Our first sewing project will be pillows for the red plastic chairs at the sewing machine tables. Because in reality those chairs are hard—and even pedal-driven dreams need a cushion.

If you would like to contribute to our project, here’s the link.

The local community contributes 25% of the total grant, the Peace Corps grant, along with crowd funding provides the balance. The total cost for this project is $522.50. At last look we were less than $100 from reaching our goal!

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