Important Note About
Examples of Sew Powerful Purses sent in from around the world.
Quilts for Good
Sew Powerful and the “Purposeful Purse”
By Bob Ruggiero
For more than 16 years, Jason Miles’ work with the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision took him across the world to help the needy. He’d gone to hospitals in Ukraine, slums in Mexico, the backwoods of Honduras, and the streets of Romania to make a difference. But even he wasn’t prepared for what he saw in March 2009 on his first trip to the Ngombe Compound in Lusaka, Zambia, Africa.
The area was home to 130,000 people – most of them destitute. And Lusaka had the ill distinction of being home to the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the country. Jason worked specifically with the aptly-named Needs Care School. Held in the shell of a church construction site, more than 475 children from toddlers to teens crammed into the facility, with so many desperate to get in that guards had to be posted at the doors to stop the flow inside. Adding to the situation: two-thirds of the students were orphans.
Jason, Esther, and Cinnamon at the Needs Care School
It was made clear to Jason and his team from a woman named Esther who was in charge of the school that they needed funds. Not just for class and educational supplies, but food for the students. Local moms has banded together to make some jewelry to sell, but it wasn’t enough. Together, they brainstormed the idea of making school uniforms – which the parents or relatives of the students would purchase – as a more lucrative source of revenue that would also fill a need. From 2009 to 2014, that program blossomed with Jason and Cinnamon raising support and offering encouragement.
Flash forward five years to 2014 when Jason and Cinnamon returned to Zambia to discover a different need. Esther explained that many of the girls missed up to six weeks of school a year during their menstruation periods due to a lack of feminine hygiene products. Staying home during this time was an established cultural norm. And local statistics on education and teen pregnancy showed that the more time spent out of class, the easier it was for the girls to stop going altogether.
Jason and Cinnamon Miles at the Ngombe Compound in Zambia, Africa
“We’ve always been drawn to international [aid] efforts, so we were excited to collaborate with Esther and the team in Zambia,” Jason says. Married since 1994 and the parents of three children, Jason and Cinnamon’s “real job” is running PixieFaire.com, a website with unique and detailed sewing patterns for doll clothes. But their faith called them to a higher purpose to give back.
“We did a lot of mission trips prior to being married, and we were always looking for a project we could really adopt long term. And we found it with this,” Cinnamon adds.
Thus was born the idea of the “Sew Powerful Purse.” The couple founded Sew Powerful, an organization that would solicit sewists all around the world to make a simple cross-body purse (based on a pattern by Cinnamon) to mail in. Partner World Vision provided the international shipping and distribution to the Needs Care School with a note from the purse maker tucked in. The Zambian sewing collective would then make a reusable feminine hygiene product to place inside the purse and hand them out to female students.
In the first year, Sew Powerful was able to deliver 504 of these purses. The next, more than 1,600 and the next 3,688 (with increases every year). The Miles’ and helpers hosted “unpacking parties” to sort through the packages sent from around the world. Last year, that number shot up to 12,750. A companion book, We Are Sew Powerful, was created to tell the story, collect anecdotes, and (of course) provide the project pattern.
Female students at the Needs Care School receive their purses with a feminine hygiene product inside.
And while Jason says that the term did not originate with them, what Sew Powerful is helping to do is create “purposeful products.”
“We didn’t just want to take products they made and sell them in America – that’s kind of touristy. I felt strongly that it’s problematic because they don’t help the community there. It didn’t feel right,” Jason says. “We found out the school uniforms filled that criteria. And then we found we could make an even bigger impact with the purse.”
Cinnamon notes that for the sewing collective, the training also brought with it a skill to learn and opportunity. The collective now provides jobs for around 35 Zambian women.
There have also been adjunct projects. In 2015, the Needs Care School received a donation of 10 acres of land 20 minutes outside the city, creating the now-thriving 3 Esthers Farm, whose bounty and harvests in turn feed the students. In 2017, it expanded even further with a soap-making collective.
For this year, the Miles’ set a goal of receiving 20,020 purses for the year 2020, and they had already booked a full schedule of visiting 15 quilt shows around the world to promote Sew Powerful and talk to quilters about contributing. But the coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to live events. So they launched the online “iSewlation 30-Day Challenge” to reach sewists and quilters now stuck at home to help them reach their goal. As of mid-June, they’ve received a respectable 8,023 purses.
“It was always in my heart to go overseas to do mission work, but it’s always a challenge to do that when you’ve also got a family and a career. But when I started to hear [stories] from people telling us how much impact this was making and filling a void of purpose – and even guilt!” Cinnamon says.
“Especially with those who have a lot of fabric. You can only make so many things for your family before they don’t need anything anymore! And Sew Powerful has evolved in both ministry and [purpose]. I’m blown away every time we do the collection. People put so much time into every purse going to someone they will never meet.”
“We found a real energy and enthusiasm for this,” Jason sums up. “And now it’s gone worldwide!”
For more on Sew Powerful or to get involved, visit SewPowerful.org