Karen Loke found her way to Sew Powerful in 2014 and within a year, found herself in Zambia with the Sew Powerful team. Her experiences in Zambia affected her in the most positive way. Now friends, family and work collegues all know about Sew Powerful and Karen's dedication to the organization. She also shares how important purposeful giving is and how she saw the benefits firsthand while on her trip.
I Won A Trip To Africa with Karen Loke
IN THIS EPISODE
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.
ABOUT THE SEW POWERFUL PODCAST
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. Let me begin by saying that Sew Powerful is an ultra supportive, collaborative and non-competitive organization. But let me contradict myself right away and tell you I was in competition with today's guest way back in 2015. And I'll explain that in a minute.
Today we are speaking with Karen Loke, whose story, My Visit to Ngombe, is featured in the new second edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book that's now available on Amazon. Welcome, Karen. How are you today?
Karen Loke, Guest 00:55
I'm great. Thank you.
Well, I was so intrigued by your story and we're going to tell our listeners how I was competing with you, which you didn't even realize. But let's start out and, tell us, how long have you been sewing? What brought you to your love of sewing?
I actually started sewing when I was about five years old. My mother was, sewed a lot and my grandmother made curtains when my mother was younger, and that helped put her through nursing school. So it was a family tradition, I guess you could say. And also my dad's mother and grandmother, were quilters. So I learned to sew on a treadle machine in our basement when I was five, and just making little things, probably doll things. And then by the time I was 10, I made my first dress with a zipper. And then just continued sewing from there. And besides machine sewing, also cross stitching, embroidery, any kind of sewing.
Wow. Wow, into the needle arts. Yeah. So how did you come to hear about Sew Powerful? What what led you there?
Well, I actually had stopped sewing for a while. When my girls got into junior high, it wasn't cool anymore to have handmade clothes, by mom. So I kind of put my machines away just use them for repairs and things like that. And then my youngest daughter was getting married and she wanted me to make some things for her wedding, some pillows and other gifts and things. And so I got my machine back out and started sewing.
And her flower girls had these American Girl dolls at the rehearsal. And I had never seen them before. And my daughter's mother-in-law had made the flower girls' dresses; they were real simple little pillowcase dresses that they had on. And I thought, Oh, I bet I could make matching dresses for those dolls. So I did a little research looking for patterns for things like that. And that's how I found Liberty Jane. They made the patterns for the doll clothes. And it was really a fledgling company then, they weren't selling for other designers. It was just strictly Cinnamon's designs. And that's how I found them. And then they were doing things with the Sew Powerful and just kicking that off as well. And they, that was the link right there.
And what intrigued you, or what brought them to your attention that made you want to make a purse way back in, now I think the purse making started in 2014. Is that right?
Yes, yes. Well, I work at a school. And I know how important education is. So putting the two together just really clicked with me. And I have two daughters, so it all, it was like a full circle. It's like, oh wow, I can keep sewing, I can do this, make something constructive. And I have a whole room full of fabric like most fabric hoarders. So I knew I could put it to good use.
And Sew Powerful did something to bring people into the fold that, at the very beginning. What did they do?
They had a contest where it was a very specific pattern that they offered for free. They just asked that you make at least one purse, send it in, and they were going to have a contest where they would at random choose anyone who sent in. All it took was one purse, and you can win a trip to Africa with Jason and Cinnamon, to help distribute the purses.
And then I'm going to circle back to my intro because this is where we were competitors, which you didn't know until today, because I also made that 2014 difficult, challenging purse and I sent in a few, very few, to be entered to win that trip. And I'm delighted to meet my fellow competitor in the contest and that you won. And the story that you've written that is in the book is about the trip that you won. And it's just so interesting. So thank you for doing that.
When you won the trip, well, first of all, I have to, now that I know Jason, and I see what he said in his email, it was like, Are you ready for Africa? I mean, it's just sort of casual and offhand, rather than, you know, most companies would have like, big balloons or something at your house, "You won the trip!"
Right, right. Yeah, yeah. As I've come to know Jason, too, that, but that was very typical. After I read that, I was running around my house screaming and hollering, so I wouldn't have read anything beyond that anyway.
We love you, Jason. We love you, Jason. Okay, so, but you say in your story here that you took a leap of faith to make this trip. Why did you say that?
Well, I didn't know Jason and Cinnamon. I knew their online presence through Liberty Jane (and which became Pixie Faire). I just, I trusted them because I got a good sense of anybody who would go to the length that they were, to do this type of service project had to be good people. It meant leaving my, it's just my husband and I at home now. And he has some health issues so it meant leaving him for, you know, an extended period of time.
Half the trip happened to be at the same time that the high school I work at, our graduation was taking place. And I'm the assistant graduation coordinator. So it meant begging for time off at a very critical time at work. And really, I'm going to Africa, just something that seemed like an impossible thing. I, you know, I just had to trust them that they would not take me somewhere that would, that I would not come back from.
And, clearly you've made it back. So that's fantastic.
Yes, and I would go again.
You had a long flight to Lusaka, you finally got it there, got there. And you met Esther. Describe your first impressions of Esther.
Esther, I don't even know how you can begin to describe her. But for me, she was like Mother Teresa and Maya Angelou all wrapped up in one, just two very powerful people that give of themselves completely. And she was both of those people in one. Just a big warm smile and a hug. And you could just feel her presence and the gratitude she felt for the fact that we were coming all that way to help these people that we don't know. And we were so dog tired. And we sat in a hotel room with her and talked about things and I was fighting so hard not to fall asleep and be rude. But she just was so moving, just so moving.
So you came on the trip and one of the objectives was to help those newly hired seamstresses make feminine hygiene supplies. Is that correct?
Yeah. And they that was going to be their role in the project was that they could make these supplies. So we brought some things with us and they also found some things locally. Jason and Cinnamon went and did some shopping and picked up some things locally. And then we had to teach them how to, literally from scratch, cut these items out, assemble them, stitch them. And they were pretty novice sewers.
And the product was a new product to them, too. That was different than what they had been using traditionally, correct?
Yes, yes. And I think what they had been sewing before that were eyeglass cases.
So pretty simple thing, straight line sewing. I think that's what I what I recall, because they had a program where they were trying to get eyeglasses for kids.
So you help them sew the feminine hygiene pads and shield, correct?
Yeah. Okay. And then you got to participate in the purse distribution while you were there. And that always sounds like one of the most rewarding experiences to me. We're going to get to that in a minute. But you talk about the number of purses that each girl ended up getting, that turned out to be sort of a learning experience while you were there. Can you elaborate on that?
Right. Well, we discovered that we gave each girl purse, they would take them home. And then they wouldn't be using the products. And we asked, Why is that? Well, it's because my mother or my aunt, whoever they happen to live with because many of them didn't have mothers. They needed those products. Once they saw what they were, and really how valuable they were and how it solved their issues, they use them. So that left the girls without them. But the mother or the aunt or the older sister needed them in order to either continue going to school themselves or to work to support the family. But that's when we recognize really, truly how valuable these items were. And hard to come by for them. In order to for the girl to keep hers, we had to give more supplies to the families.
Mm hmm. And so you all, on that first trip, came up with a little small purse for the family members to have the supplies in, correct?
Right, we were trying to think of a way, because we only had 500 purses that first year. So it really wasn't enough to give the purse. And I don't even know if we even thought about giving one of those purses to the family member, it was just the idea of what can we put the things in, the hygiene supplies in, that would be quick and easy qnd that they could make right there in Africa. So we sat up late one night and just came up with this little simple envelope, fold-over envelope clutch, that they could use some of the fabric that they have huge bolts of, it was, I think, upholstery fabric, even. Something that the ladies could make quick and easy as a container to make it a complete set and maybe gift them that way or sell them within the community. So that was just something that we we came up with as a solution. But I don't think that that ended up being done.
Right. So that was just sort of an example of the enthusiasms that the moms there had to try and make the school work and to solve the problem.
I think even the sewing cooperative ladies, when we first started training them how to make these things, didn't really quite understand how it was going to work. They were just starting to sew them. And it wasn't until we really showed them, Okay, this is what this part of it does, this is how this is used, how it fits into your garment. And then it was like the light bulb went off. And I think for the girls, the same way, then it was like, Oh, I get it now. This is really going to be good.
Well, and the other, I think you discovered two other things that were in short supply. I mean, you thought you would give them the purse and the supplies. But there's more that you need to be able to use them effectively. And you discover they lacked that. Tell us about that.
When Esther was talking to them, and she talked to them in their native tongue so I really don't know what she said to them. And they were, it was a little nervous at first talking about feminine hygiene and the products and you know, little tittering going on, and, well this was with the girls, I'm sorry.
We had to actually demonstrate how to use the product. And then Esther asked them, How many of you have more than one clean pair of underwear? And most of the girls only had the one pair. So if that gets soiled, they've got to wash it, they've got to, you know, it became complicated. So we realized in a big hurry, they need more undergarments. And a lot of them didn't have soap to wash things with. So okay, we need soap. We made a mad dash to a local grocery store and Jason, we're scooping up soap and he went and talked to the manager and worked out a deal with them to get soap and, I don't know, Esther had a connection for somebody with undergarments. So then they went and bought whole piles of girl's underwear. And then we started stuffing that into purses as well. Imagine not having more than one pair of underwear.
I know, but it sounds like on that first trip there was a lot of learnings and maybe a little bit of surprises that maybe hadn't been anticipated.
Right, right. Because it's such a different culture. It's not what we know here. So the things that you think of as being normal, your normal, it's not their normal.
Right, right. Yeah, so that was very important learnings that have now been incorporated and it's just part of the norm now. In your story, (I really love this sentence) "I learned about purposeful giving versus random donations." We're going to talk about that after the break. Just hold that thought and we'll we'll find out what Sew Powerful does in terms of purposeful giving.
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 smile.amazon.com, and designate Sew Powerful as your preferred charity, Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase right back to Sew Powerful.
And now back to our podcast.
Welcome back. We're talking with Karen Loke. She was the winner of the 2015 trip to Lusaka, Zambia, to meet Esther, the seamstresses and the school girls at the Needs Care School. That was the first year Jason and Cinnamon took a group of volunteers there. Before the break, we were talking about purposeful giving. Karen, can you tell us why this is important to you? And what do you see is the difference between purposeful giving, and just random donations?
That was definitely something I learned from Jason on this trip. The difference between just throwing money at a cause or random stuff that they can use and need, which I know that they would appreciate, but it doesn't really solve a problem. Whereas if you, I guess it goes back to the old "if you teach a man to fish, they can feed themselves." So by having purposeful products that help the individuals and the community, you're giving them so much more than just a thing. And so that really opened my eyes to that.
Well, and other organizations try and boost the economy by having the local people make something and then sell them to people in the US. But that's not the Sew Powerful model, is it?
No, it isn't. And actually, the coincidence is, my hairdresser actually had some things for sale in her shop. And they were baskets and purses that were crocheted out of plastic bags. And they actually came from, I think it's pronounced "chicken-bousso'? It's a cooperative right in Lusaka. And this was years before my trip. So I knew what they, what he was talking about when he talked about this model of making things and relying on people in the states to sell it. It's not, it just, it's not conducive to really making a difference to them, where they're feeling like they've done something for themselves or for their community. It leaves the community.
And it almost creates an artificial market. I mean, how much demand is there, really, for purses in the US made out of plastic bags, you know?
Right, or baskets or whatever it is.
It's not functional, to them, item.
Right. Well, so you were there for the purse distribution. So there were, I believe Jason announced just the other day that, he sort of went through the history, but that first year, 504 purses, went over to Lusaka to the Ngombe Compound. And you were there for that very first purse distribution, right?
So just describe that.
As I said before, that was it was a little nervous, because we didn't know how the girls were going to like these purses. And I got to pick out the seven that I made, and hand those to a girl. So I gave one to each of the girls that they would just come up to the table and we would hand them a purse. They didn't get to pick their purse. We didn't understand at that point that that was important. We should have, but we were just more interested in getting these products out. And the girls were so polite and so, so thankful. And then they went back to their desks and they sat and the first thing they did was they pulled out that note card. And that really was surprising to me. I didn't know that the impact that that note card would have. But that was just as important as the purse and the contents.
You know, everyone who has seen the purse distribution says the exact same thing, Karen, so I'm glad you shared that too. So the girls were very polite and reserved and they went back to their desk and then the class was dismissed. What happened next?
Well, there's a big, it's a dirt courtyard, that's in between where the classroom was and where the building where the sewing cooperative is. And they all have their purses on and they were just dancing in circles and singing. And all of a sudden you see trading of purses. I like yours, do you like mine? And they were just getting so excited about the whole thing. It was like, there's school etiquette and then there was their real-life etiquette. And just being teenagers, being very happy, just delightful teenage girls.
The girls are the same everywhere. So you encountered one young lady, though, who wanted a specific style of purse. Now we have to go back to the, this isn't the beginner purse, this isn't the intermediate purse, this is the first purse. And if you happen to see the teaser where Cinnamon talked about the first purse, she held up a little brown purse. And it had (I remember making that) this little gathered pocket on the outside of the flap that was not easy to make. So tell us what happened with the little girl that wanted a different purse.
She approached me and said, Do you think there's (in a real quiet voice), Is there another purse that has a pocket? Because some people didn't put that pocket on. It was really hard to make. And it was just easier to forego the pocket and do some decorative stitching on the front flap. Because the girls, I don't know what they would put in the little pockets, but they love the little pockets.
So I said okay, I remember seeing some other purses that we didn't bring over to the school building. There's other ones with pockets on it. What color would you like, what's your favorite color? And she looked at me said, Well, what's your favorite color? I said, Well, I like blue or green. And she paused and then said, Orange, right? And I really don't like orange. It would be the last on my list. But I said yes, I love orange. And I went over to the building and I found her an orange purse. And from that point on, I vowed that I will make orange purses. Because it's not about me.
Absolutely, absolutely. So when you are getting ready to leave, there was a send off ceremony. And because you were the first group coming, they might not have expected another group to ever show up again. They might have thought it was a one time thing, right?
Yeah, I suppose. They didn't know, and I don't even think we knew that this was going to grow into what it is. So yeah, they were saying goodbye to us.
You said they had a very moving gratitude ceremony. I've not heard a description of that. Can you tell us what that was like?
I'm trying to remember because, though we also went to another remote school, and they also did a little ceremony. But it just involved a lot of singing, some dancing; the music is very, very moving. It's Christian-based music, mostly, from what, it was sometimes hard to tell with the different dialect. And I can't remember whether it is the welcoming or when we left, but they had us do some dancing and participate with them. But they dragged all the desks out of the classrooms and headed into this dusty courtyard in the hot blazing sun. And they sat there for a long time, on their best behavior. And each age group sort of did a little song and presentation. And they took their turns and the little boys got restless because they weren't really getting anything out of this, but they were still well-behaved.
That sounds fantastic. And then, you know, as you're wrapping up your story, you talk about spending time with Jason and Cinnamon, and we sort of chuckled at the beginning as, because now we do know Jason better than you did there at the beginning. But can you talk about what your impressions are of them and why this ministry has meant so much to you?
Well, like I said, in the beginning, it was, there was a big leap of faith and a lot of trust. And they just are really wonderful people. There, they, their values, they're family oriented. They've been on mission trips and giving all their life. So it's not just something that they decided to do one day; they're devoted to it. And the fact that Sew Powerful has such a low overhead, they don't draw money from it for themselves. It's about as much as they can give. I just think that that speaks to who they are.
And you'd found your community benefited from your involvement with Sew Powerful too, right?
As far as my community, my immediate community, my family, my friends, my co-workers. They just got so excited when I won this trip. It was a really bad time of year for me to go and they just said, Go. And one of the other teachers at the school stepped in and filled my spot for me. And they just are really supportive. When I had recently made masks and was selling masks, I asked them for a minimum amount and they all gave me extra and said please donate this to Sew Powerful. I didn't have to ask, they just know that that's my charity of choice.
So whenever I do things like that they will, people gave me extra money and it's what I used to donate to my monthly amount that I give to Sew Powerful, or to buy more supplies to make purses. So that's been really great.
I love how you conclude your story and I am going to read this sentence because it's so eloquent. "My takeaway from the project and the trip was this: my small gift of time sewing some purses, gave a huge gift of time to several girls, time for an education they are so hungry for and time for a better and brighter future. Along with that, we are giving them the gift of knowing that they matter to the rest of the world." Can you elaborate on that just a little bit?
Well, it surprised me how surprised the women in the sewing Co Op, because that's who we had the discussion with, would be, when we left, they said a prayer and a song and said to us, We can't believe that some, that you from the United States even know we exist. And that really threw me off because I thought, Of course we know you exist. But they don't know that. And I remember years ago, Oprah Winfrey saying, people just want to be heard. And that's, I think that equates. They just want to know that they matter. And they do.
So it's just a small thing that I can do. I know how to sew, I have fabric. What, It takes me an hour and a half to make a purse but look at what a difference it makes. When I'm down in the dumps and I'm feeling sorry for myself for whatever reason, I just grabbed my little kit of purses that I have and I just start sewing a purse. And it just takes me back to the trip. It takes me back to those women saying, thank you for knowing we matter. And I get over myself. So for me, that's been the benefit for me.
Well, Karen, thank you so much for sharing your insights and telling us about how you won the trip (that I didn't win, that you did win)
Sorry, sorry Jan.
Sorry, not sorry.
Anyway I'm so glad you had that experience and thank you so much for sharing it with our listeners. We will talk with you soon.
Thank you. It's been my pleasure.
If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at www.sewpowerful.org. 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.
ABOUT THE HOST
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 Examiner.com. Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.