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My Visit To Ngombe with Kathy Simonsen


Kathy Simonsen is passionate about sewing with a purpose and helping women in developing countries. When she found Sew Powerful and discovered it combined her two passions she was in! A trip to Zambia cemented that relationship. Hear Kathy describe, in her own words, the way in which Sew Powerful has come along side those in the Ngombe Compound to bring dignity and hope to this very poor community.


We are Sew Powerful, How a Global Community of Seamstresses Is Changing Zambia One Girl at A Time, 2nd edition. By Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, © 2016 & 2020 Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, all rights reserved.


The Sew Powerful Podcast shines a light on the people behind the mission to keep girls in school and create purposeful products in Zambia. Join us every week for a new 30-minute episode to meet new people, hear inspiring stories, and learn how you can join us in this global movement. Whether you sew or not, make purses or not, you will find something to enjoy in every episode. Listen today.


Jan Cancila, Host 00:04

Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan Cancila. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So, let's get started.


Jan 00:19

Hello, today we are speaking with Kathy Simonsen. And Kathy is a volunteer with Sew Powerful. She has had the opportunity to travel to Ngombe Compound in Lusaka, Zambia. And we're going to hear all about that trip she took in 2016. Kathy, how are you today?


Kathy Simonsen, Guest 00:42

I'm fine, Jan. Thank you.


Jan 00:44

Thank you. You wrote a story and it's published in both the first and second editions of the We Are Sew Powerful book. And the name of your story is My Visit to Ngombe, and I just found it fascinating to read. You start out by saying that you're a retired empty nester. Tell us about this. What are you retired from?


Kathy 01:09

I was a medical technologist. And so I worked in hospital and clinic laboratories by running laboratory tests, drawing blood, etc.


Jan 01:18

Yes, you're an empty nester. Tell us a little about your family.


Kathy 01:22

Yes, I have a husband and three children. I have a son, who's in Florida and he's a physician, another son that lives next door and he's a firefighter. And then I have a daughter who is a nurse and they both live in Oregon, near me. So and I have six grandchildren.


Jan 01:42

Oh, lovely. That's wonderful. And one of the hobbies that you have is sewing but I can see over your shoulder there, a piece of quilting. So I presume you do more than just sewing, right?


Kathy 01:54

Well, quilting is sewing. But yes, yeah, I enjoy sewing. My grandmother taught me to sew when I was young, and I just love doing it.


Jan 02:05

So what kind of things do you, when you're not making purses for Sew Powerful, what do you make?


Kathy 02:11

I make a little bit of clothing, I've made... This is how I found out about Sew Powerful. I sewed American Girl doll clothes for my granddaughters when they were young. And I found Jason and Cinnamon's business and was sewing from their patterns. And that's how I found out about Sew Powerful. I saw this on the email, you know, sew a purse and I went, Oh, I can sew a purse. So I just do various things, whatever. Oh, now I've been making hospital gowns and a few masks, you know, for the communities.


Jan 02:48

Excellent. In your story, you say God has given you a heart for women in developing countries. How did that come about?


Kathy 02:57

That came about, I took a trip earlier in 2016 to Nepal. And I visited a home for women who had been rescued from sex trafficking. And some of their stories just tore at my heart. And then later that year, I went to Sierra Leone, and my daughter was volunteering as a nurse on Mercy ships, and met some of those women and I saw my daughter's heart for the women there who, just in poverty, you know, and their customs, just struggle with, just, the culture there.


Jan 03:35



Kathy 03:35

Yeah. So that's kind of how that came about.


Jan 03:38

So you love to sew, you have a passion to help women in developing countries. And then you discovered Sew Powerful.


Kathy 03:47

Right. It kind of meshed both of my passions and just had fun making the purses. And yeah, so it was just a win-win for me. I want to do things that have a purpose. I don't want to just sew for always my own gratification, but to know I'm making a difference. So that's...


Jan 04:11

When did you make your first purse for Sew Powerful? Do you recall?


Kathy 04:14

You know, I don't recall. It was probably in 2015.


Kathy 04:18



Kathy 04:19

2014 or 2015


Jan 04:21

One of the things that resonates with you about Sew Powerful is the way that Sew Powerful creates jobs for the women in Zambia. Talk about that a little bit.


Kathy 04:33

Yes, I, not only are we just giving to people in need, which meets an immediate need, but it is also employing these seamstresses and they can make a living, be able to support their families with what they make sewing the pads and also the school uniforms that they're doing and I think now they're making soap. But I just, that's meaningful for me. It's contributing to their economy and the, oh, just the women's self esteem and being able to send their kids to school and have the money for that. That's important.


Jan 05:19

One of the other things in your story that you said that you liked about Sew Powerful was the way Jason and Cinnamon felt called to do this by God.


Kathy 05:33

Yes, well, yeah, my faith is very important to me. So I, just coming alongside someone else's faith was important to them. I just, and then also, Esther, on the farm is a Christian also. And yeah, it just was important that we were doing it in God's name, and it was a calling for them. And it was great to come alongside them and their passion also.


Jan 06:04

Okay, so it's 2016. You know, about Sew Powerful from Facebook, maybe a little bit, and maybe from the newsletter that you get from Jason. And they announced that they were taking a trip to Lusaka, Zambia. Tell us your thought process when you heard about that.


Kathy 06:26

Well, first of all I said, I want to go. And then I thought, Oh, you know, I don't know if I'm qualified, or the type of person that they want to be on the trip. I'm not a person that's good at promoting, you know, things. But Jason said, you know, it's great, we'd love to have you, you know, even if you just support us and continue making purses, that would be great. And then I thought, Oh, this, I'm going with people I don't even know who I've never met. And my husband's a great supporter of me and encouraged me. And so I applied to go and it worked out. At first I was to fly through Seattle and meet up with everybody in Dubai. But my husband said, you know, I'd really feel more comfortable if you met everybody in San Francisco. So I drove down to San Francisco and I met up with Jason, Cinnamon and Irene and Shirley and the others that came. So that made it a good trip. And I felt comfortable with them all.


Jan 07:37

Well, that's great. Now, you had mentioned that you had visited a couple of other countries in Africa prior to this trip. But had you done other international travel?


Kathy 07:50

Yes. My husband I, once the kids flew the coop, we've been to Turkey and Israel and Scotland and England and, you know, Italy and several different countries around. Yes.


Jan 08:06

So you've seen a lot of different cultures close up.


Kathy 08:08

Yes, yes I have.


Jan 08:10

Okay, so you arrive from San Francisco to Dubai. I understand there's an overnight stay there, and then you hop on another plane for another long trip into Lusaka. Correct?


Kathy 08:22

Yes, yes.


Jan 08:24

Now, you had something very interesting in your luggage, I understand.


Kathy 08:29

Yes, yes, I volunteered to carry, it's this big metal thing called a KAM snap. I mean, it works (I didn't research this before you asked me) but it's needed to secure the pad, the holder that holds the pad to the panties. And so the women had been using Velcro which can get very uncomfortable if you're using that to connect to your panties. So I was able to demonstrate how to use that KAM snap so that they could use the snaps and make it more comfortable for the girls.


Jan 09:11

Was there any question about this in airport security? What this big metal thing is in your suitcase?


Kathy 09:17

No. It went through.


Jan 09:19

Well, good. Yay.


Kathy 09:20

No problem at all.


Jan 09:22

Well, that's, that's wonderful. Okay, so you get to Lusaka. And what is your impression of that city?


Kathy 09:30

Well, when we were first driving in from the airport, after having been to Sierra Leone, which is another very poor country. It looked amazing to me. It had beautiful streets and we drove by the Capitol, and I thought, wow, this is a nice African country. So I was impressed.


Jan 09:52

Okay, so you spent the first night in Zambia in Lusaka, and the next morning, your bus driver, named Jeffrey,


Kathy 10:01

Jeffrey, yes.


Jan 10:02

Okay, came and got you and took you over to the Ngombe Compound. What were your first impressions there?


Kathy 10:09

Well, it was a very stark contrast between the main part of the city we saw, when we came in to this slum area where the streets were full of potholes. Sometimes the bus was leaning quite a bit going through the potholes. But Jeffrey was a great driver. It's a very stark difference. Kids, just, little kids just wandering the streets. And then, of course, we drove by the ravine where they dump the garbage. And, you know, so it was just a stark difference.


Jan 10:43

You said that there's a lot of children that you saw. You relate that to the AIDS epidemic? How does that work?


Kathy 10:51

Yes, we mainly saw very young people, probably 20s and 30s, and the children, hardly any middle aged or older people. And I believe that's due to the AIDS that ravaged the country. And a lot of the girls we talked to have lost both parents or one parent through that, and I think some of the children are also HIV positive. But yeah, that's why there were no older people in town and in the slum.


Jan 11:26

So you get there. And it sounds like you had a very warm greeting from Esther and the children.


Kathy 11:33

Yes, yes. It was. They just kind of lined us up and the children marched in, and were singing wonderful songs. That was a joy to hear. We felt very welcomed by them.


Jan 11:49

And you also helped with lunch that day? Is that correct?


Kathy 11:53

Yes. Lunch was this, I don't know what it was called. I think it was sent in from somewhere, these big bags of gruel that they put together was probably corn and stuff and mixed with nutrients. And they got just a big cupful for lunch. And we found out sometimes this is the only meal they got that day. And then some of them even brought extra containers and they saved part of it to bring home to, for their brothers and sisters and family. So it was, it was very eye opening. We have so, so much here in the United States to choose from, we never go for want. And so, it just kind of breaks your heart.


Jan 12:44

Okay, so, in your story, you say after lunch, you start unpacking the purses that had previously been shipped over. What was that process like?


Kathy 12:57

Well, we, they've been shipped over and it came just like a couple of weeks before we arrived. And so we were just, we took out all the purses, and they had the pads that the women had been sewing, the pad kits and a bar soap, and a couple pair of panties that were bought locally to, you know, support their economy. And so we just, we stood around and we kind of assembly line and packed the different things into the purses for the girls.


Jan 13:32

Oh, that's great. And then after the purse distribution, and I understand the girls got to pick the purse that they wanted.


Kathy 13:40

Yes, yes, they, Esther would, you know, tell which girl to come up. She picked the purse and then whichever one, we had all the ones we had brought that we had made. And so if they picked our purse, then, you know, we went and hugged them and had a picture taken with them. So that was special.


Jan 13:57

Yeah, well, that's nice. Did the girls get one or two purses on this trip?


Kathy 14:01

But they each got two purses, because it's just African culture when you bring something home, it's shared with the whole family. And so a lot of times the mother, the Auntie, the older sister would also be using that. And so Esther had suggested that, I believe, that we give two purses to make sure that that girl had one for herself. And then as they left they would pick out the second one so they each had two to bring home.


Jan 14:28

So I understand you had an opportunity to talk to a small group of girls that had gotten the purses the previous year, correct?


Kathy  14:36

Yes, yes.


Jan 14:37

And so they told you what those purses meant to them. Can you share some of those stories?


Kathy 14:42

Yes, yes. One of them, she was one that had lost both her parents and her grandmother, and was staying with her grandmother and she said, Thank you so much for the purses. My grandmother would never be able to afford a purse as nice as this. Another one came in, and was just in tears. And she of course said, Thank you very much, you know, for the purses, that she was staying in school all day. And she says, and thank you for the soap. She says, my mother could not afford soap, just not. And so that was very touching.


Kathy 15:22

And then one other girl that was, that really stood out. I think Jason asked her, you know, is there anything we can do to improve, you know, these purses and what you get? And she said, Well, they don't dry fast enough. And, well, why don't they dry fast enough? She says, Well, just last year, she didn't get a purse that year before. I think she had, probably her period started during the year. And so a friend of hers was sharing her supplies with her. And then this year, of course, she got two purses. And she says she's giving one to her mother. And then she says, So now my older sister and I will share this one. And then, and then we're going, Oh, no wonder they aren't drying out fast enough. You don't have very many pads. So after talking to her for a while, everyone said we're gonna give you another purse. And it was neat. Jason just said, You tell your sister to stay in school, that we love her and just encouraged her, you know, to stay in school. So that was, that was a neat experience too.


Jan 16:31

Hold that thought. We're going to take a short break here. And when we get back, we're going to hear more about Kathy's trip to the Ngombe Compound.


Jan 16:41

Have you gotten the second edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book? This updated version of the original bestseller (4.9 out of five stars by the way) is again authored by Sew Powerful co-founders, Jason and Cinnamon Miles. It is available on Amazon in paperback or for your Kindle reader. This latest edition is packed full of moving stories about how Sew Powerful came to be, the volunteers who make it happen and the way this small movement has grown into a global mission to break the cycle of poverty through education and the dignity of work. And don't forget, when you place your order, if you use and designate Sew Powerful as your preferred charity, Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase right back to Sew Powerful.


Jan 17:41

And now back to our podcast.


Jan 17:43

Welcome back. We've been talking with Kathy Simonsen and she's been regaling us with the details of the trip she made to Lusaka, Zambia, where she worked in the Ngombe Compound with other volunteers from Sew Powerful on a trip she made in 2016. Kathy, you continue your story and after seeing what you saw in Ngombe Compound you talk about the way that you feel about the donations that you make. Tell us about that $5 for each purse. How does that work?


Kathy 18:19

Well, we were sent, we're sending in our purses, which is wonderful and girls appreciate them. But it also costs about $5 to supply the soap, the panties and, of course, to help pay for the seamstresses to make, and well actually, to pay for the flannel and the fabric that goes into the pads. So that's why it's important. And so once I send in my purses, I go online and donate $5 per purse to Sew Powerful. So that's, it's very important to do that.


Jan 18:56

Right. Right. And I mean, it's covering materials and salaries. I mean that's


Kathy 19:01



Jan 19:01

That's amazing. But when you think about it on a per purse basis, that makes it pretty doable for us. And when the girls get the purse, I understand that they also make a pledge. Can you tell us about that? And did you witness that?


Kathy 19:13

Yes, yes, I did. Esther talked to the girls. We didn't understand it all. Sometimes it was in their local language, but she was telling them, of course, how to use the pads. And then the girls had to promise that they would not miss school during their monthly period. And you know, as we talked to the girls, when we interviewed them, they all said, No, I'd have not missed school. I make sure I stay in school.


Jan 19:42

And what is your understanding of what happens when the girls don't have these supplies and they miss school and get behind? What's their fate?


Kathy 19:53

Their fate: they are not able to pass their exams because they miss a lot of school and so they're unable to go on to secondary school. And that leaves them open to have children early, even, you know, not being married, and also married early. And then just staying in that poverty cycle. There's just no hope of getting out of it.


Kathy 20:21



Kathy 20:22

So that's why it's so important.


Jan 20:25

I think it's so amazing to think that a purse with reusable sanitary pads, a bar of soap and underwear can affect not only the girl but her family and her future so dramatically.


Kathy 20:39

Definitely, definitely. Yeah.


Jan 20:43

When you were in Zambia, you also had a chance to travel. I think I understand. It's about 10 or 20 miles over to the Three Esthers Farm.


Kathy 20:55

Yes, yes we did.


Jan 20:57

Tell us about the farm.


Kathy 21:00

It was just kind of getting started when we arrived, and we met the caretaker and his family. They had just planted (can't remember what the crop was) but, and they were, at that time, hand watering everything. They had a pump with a well, and they would just fill the bucket and water the plants. And then we stopped at a nursery on the way and bought fruit trees. And so, enough that we each got to plant one fruit tree and water it. So it was, it was just a neat experience to see how this would help feed the children in the future. And I just saw a recent video where they planted banana trees, and we're excited about that. So it's coming along. I think it's a work in progress. But it's a great, yeah, it's a great addition to the project.


Jan 22:02

And how exciting to think that the children at the school are going to be able to add fruit to their lunch versus just the porridge-type meal that you witnessed there.


Kathy 22:14

Definitely, definitely.


Jan 22:15

Yeah, so one of the words that you use in your story is the word "alongside" and I think it's a really important word because it, the way that Sew Powerful operates. And you have a great perspective on that. Can you share with us, please, Kathy?


Kathy 22:34

Yes, it was very important to me that the vision for this was local, was from a local woman, Esther, and she had a vision to start a school because these kids weren't even going to school. And that's when Jason and Cinnamon were able to visit her. And she said, Well, you know, what we'd like to do is hire some women and help them. And then it's all about us as Americans, or all over the world, coming alongside a local person's dream, who has, who knows the culture, knows what the needs are. And we're just helping them. We're not coming in with our own ideas and saying this is what you need. So that was very, very important to me that, it came from the local's vision because they know their culture, and how it works.


Jan 23:37

And so Esther started the school, but she also started a clinic. Do you know about that?


Kathy 23:46

Yeah, just a little. We visited the clinic. And at that time, that was open two days a week with a government nurse. And one day a week was, the women could come and get contraceptives. And I think we were told that the women sometimes had to do it secretly. They would get the, like Depo-Provera shots, because some of the husbands, that was kind of their, they wanted a lot of children. So that would be something not acceptable. And then the other day was the, where the children and those dealing with HIV AIDS could come and get their medication or, you know, the children had other sicknesses or whatever.


Jan 24:33

Well, and since you've been there, the area has grown. There's a building that's under construction that will include a bigger clinic, expanded area for the seamstresses, and then the seamstresses move out of the school, which gives more room for the children in the school. I believe they're going to use that room for a library that the school hadn't had before.


Kathy 24:56

Oh, nice.


Jan 24:56

So anyway. Well Kathy, I want to thank you very much for your time and your insights and just painting the picture of what you saw when you were on your trip to Zambia. It was just really delightful to talk with you today.


Kathy 25:13

Well, you're welcome, Jan. It was a delight and my pleasure to talk to you, too.


Jan 25:19

All right, we'll talk to you soon. Bye.


Kathy 25:22

Okay, bye bye.


Jan 25:24

If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at That's SEW POWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization. It's where you can download the free purse patterns or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.


Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, the Area Manager for Shows and Events-Mid/South USA and as the Houston Regional Coordinator. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter-in-law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at