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Meet Volunteer #1 with Leslie Unruh


Meet Sew Powerful's volunteer #1. Leslie Unruh unwittingly helped create the model for the way volunteers support Sew Powerful. Leslie shares the early days as the first volunteer to the role she plays in the expanded organization today.


Sewing and Stitchery Expo, 2606 W Pioneer, Puyallup, WA 98371;

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

Welcome. Today we are talking with Leslie Unruh, and Leslie has quite the story to tell. Leslie was volunteer, or is volunteer number one for Sew Powerful and we're going to explore how that came about and some of the other pioneering activities in Leslie's life. Welcome, Leslie. How are you?


Leslie Unruh, Guest 00:40

Oh, thank you, Jan. Glad to be here. And it's good to see you again.


Jan 00:43

Well, thank you. You, too. Why don't you just give us a little rundown of what all your roles are for Sew Powerful right now. And then we're going to circle back chronologically.


Leslie 00:57

Okay, I'm Sew Powerful's Regional Coordinator for Washington State. And I am a purse maker. So that's pretty much what I do. I do like to do teaching. And that's kind of one of my passions. And I do that as much as I possibly can for Sew Powerful.


Jan 01:18

Hmm. Yes. And, boy, you should see the purses she makes, they're stunning. I want to circle back though, and start with your career. You had a career as a mechanical engineer, is that correct?


Leslie 01:31

That is correct.


Jan 01:32

Okay. I mean, I just have to ask this: what on earth made you pick mechanical engineering? That's not a typical choice for a young lady, you know, about to start her her career.


Leslie 01:45

Well, it's an interesting story. When I was a junior in high school, my chemistry teacher said to me, I think you should think about going to school at MIT. And I said, What's MIT? I didn't even know. And he said, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And I said to him, Oh, I don't want to go to no technical school. And he just laughed and said, well, you look into it. So over the summer of that year, I looked into it found out it was an engineering school. I'd never even heard of engineering, really. I lived in a really small neighborhood. My dad was a printer and my mom was a nurse. I didn't have any role models. But it was something that I thought, oh, that would be really cool. And I am kind of a mechanical person. I fixed all kinds of things at our house. I fixed the antenna after a hurricane and I fixed the dryer. And so I said, Oh, this might be kind of interesting. So I applied early admission, got in, and I became a mechanical engineer.


Jan 02:45

Now how many women were in your class at MIT in mechanical engineering?


Leslie 02:50

I was there in the early 1980s. And there was actually a push at that time, so we got up to about 25% women. I think it's kind of circled around that number, but I think that was kind of a high point, at least. I honestly don't know now if they're about at the same level, but I imagine that that's the case.


Jan 03:14

Wow, well, what a stellar education to have graduated from MIT. That's impressive. So you graduate from MIT, and what happens?


Leslie 03:24

Well, in my senior year, they always told us, you should have a practice interview. So fall of senior year, I went into the recruiting area, and I looked at all the places that were recruiting for mechanical engineers, and I said, Oh, the Boeing Company, they make airplanes and stuff like that. And I thought that would be kind of fun for a practice interview. So I picked up their brochure, read through it, went in to see my interviewer. And I had looked enough at the brochure, and picked out some things that I would tell him that I wanted to do at Boeing. And so that was the very first question he asked. And little did I know, the most important thing for him to fill out was what the person was going to do at Boeing. So I had that answer, right up front for him. And so then we just sat and talked for a while. And then the interviewee after me canceled and so we talked even more. And so, after that interview, I got a job offer fall of senior year. So I, you know, had an opportunity and turns out that was my best offer. And that's what I decided to do: move across country from Massachusetts to Seattle and work for the Boeing Company.


Jan 04:37

And you've been in the Seattle area ever since?


Leslie 04:40

Yes, I have.


Jan 04:41

Wow. So that must have been a big change, just coming right out of college from the northeast to the northwest part of the United States.


Leslie 04:49

Yes, my husband often jokes, they only let someone off of Cape Cod every, once every 100 years and I was the escapee.


Jan 05:00

Okay, so you have this great career at Boeing and I'm reading your story. Well, and I probably should back up and say, we're talking to Leslie because the story that she wrote called "God Arranged It" was published in the first edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book. And Leslie, I don't know if you're aware, but it was also chosen to be in the second edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book that was just released. So we're exploring these stories in more depth and so that's why we're talking with you today. But, okay, so you're busy with your job. I mean, it sounds like it was probably a fairly demanding career that you had with them, being in engineering, right?


Leslie 05:46

Yes, I had a lot of really fun opportunities. I worked as a rocket scientist, I worked as a cyber security specialist, I got to work on lots of really fun projects that were a lot of the times pushing the state of the art of technology.


Jan 06:03

Wow. Well, now we know who the brains of Sew Powerful is and we're talking to her today. Okay, so you're busy at work, but you're looking for friendships with other women, but what happened? You say in your story, that was hard to find other women to just sort of meet up with.


Leslie 06:23

It was, because early on in my career, you know, there weren't that many women. And then later on, you know, the women I did know, you know, had families and so they weren't all that interested in doing something outside of work and all of that. And we would go to church, and we were in a huge church, and it was just hard to find the right community to, that we could touch base with and kind of be involved in and we tried classes, we tried this, we tried that. And you know, that just was hard to find the right community until I found this one opportunity that the church was having what they called a Craft Day. And I was just thrilled to be able to go. My husband had just bought me a brand new sewing machine that year and so I had this sewing machine with all kinds of great new features on it. And I was just like, Oh, I really want to go to that Craft Day. And that really changed my life. It was a huge turning point in my life.


Jan 07:24

Well, that is very cool. So from that Craft Day, you sort of, it sounds like you joined a group that maybe splintered off from that, or were they existing and you joined them?



Oh, they had another, a few of those ladies had a quilting group and I had been invited to join that, right from the time of that Craft Day. And it took me a few more years before I finally did do that. And oh, and it became even more of a personal connection. I mean, I was involved with the ladies who were doing the Craft Day and we had been starting a quilting ministry at church, but I hadn't gotten involved with this other quilting group. But as soon as I did, it was just like 20 wonderful Christian women that would get together at least once a month and share and with our love of quilting, but then also share our lives with each other. And once a year, we would go on a quilting retreat, and it was just a really, it really is, I shouldn't say was, but it is a really blessed community.


Jan 08:29

Now the name of this, this group is so clever. Tell us tell us your name.


Leslie 08:34

Well, it's Quilting Together Sisters; and the acronym for that is QTS. So we also call ourselves the "Cuties." And so it's a fun term that one of our ladies came up with that and it was we all thought it was really fun.


Jan 08:51

Well, and as we're recording this, we're sort of still in the middle of the COVID situation. So what did the Cuties do for quilting retreat in 2020?


Leslie 09:02

We did a virtual retreat, which turned out to be, for me anyway, I told my husband: This entire week, I'm going to be quilting. So you have to pretend like I'm at my quilting retreat, and I will come down and make you dinners but then expect that I'm going to go right back upstairs and sew til midnight. So we did have a couple of Zoom meetings so we were able to do Show and Tells. We always have challenges and so we did what we call "reveals" for our challenges and we had a Zoom meeting for our business meeting where we decide what we're going to do for the next year. And we were doing a char- one of the charity projects this year were blocks for Quilt of Valor. So we always do something fun like that as well.



How nice How nice. So it's through, was it through the Cuties that you heard of Sew Powerful?


Leslie 09:55

Yes, it was.


Leslie 09:55

Yes. One of my favorite friends in the Cuties, Barb, she is a great, was a great doll clothes maker. And she had been making some of Cinnamon's for-profit patterns for dolls and kind of got me interested in that as well. But one time she brought, I had heard about Sew Powerful, and she brought that charity to the notice of the Cuties. And some of us made purse, or, you know, heard about it and, and all of that. So, that year, I think that was in the fall, she mentioned that and I thought, oh, that'll be a fun project for me to do with my mom and sister.


Jan 10:17

Tell us that story.


Jan 10:41

And so you went back home to Cape Cod over the Christmas, right?


Leslie 10:47

Mm-hm, and mom, and I, I said, Mom, Barb, let's sit down and let's make one of these purses for Sew Powerful. And so we actually followed along on the video and made the purses. My mom, she's, you know, in her 80s so she would do a lot of the pinning and sometimes a little basting here and there. And you know, we do a little of the sewing on the machine, sew on her purse and all of that. And so my mom and I actually finished ours. My sister still has a few stitches to do on hers. So, some day it's gonna show up.


Jan 11:11

All right, Well, well, that's cool. So we're gonna circle back to this or come back to this part. But the note cards played an important part in what you did that Christmas, right?


Leslie 11:34

Yes, cuz, after we finished the purses, you know, we're reading the rest of the pattern and it says to write this note card and the, you know, the note card's right there in the pattern. And so mom and I were still like, what do we write on the note card? You know, I hadn't been involved for Sew Powerful. And so we're like, oh, I think I'll just write something fun. And then Oh, do we sign our names? Oh, I don't think we should do that. I think I'm just gonna say Auburn, Washington, you know where I'm from. And so that's what we did. And we didn't put our names down. And we just, you know, wrote a fun verse. And I think I put a few hearts on it or something like that, and put it in the purse, put the $5 in the purse, and we mailed them off.


Jan 12:15

Okay, and we know that's a No. No now, don't we?


Leslie 12:18

Yes, we do.


Jan 12:20

But that was then, this is now. Okay. All right. So Christmas break is over, you go back to work and what happens?


Leslie 12:28

Well, that was 2014. I had another year of work and in 2016, I decided to retire from Boeing after over 32 years of service. And then I'm trying to decide, well, what am I going to do now? And I'm like, I want to help out working with Sew Powerful.


Jan 12:51

And you happen to live in the hometown where Sew Powerful is based, is that right?


Leslie 12:57

Yes. That was one of the reasons that I wanted to do that, along with the fact that, you know, Sew Powerful is, you know, enabling girls to get their education because education in my mind is very important for young women to be successful in the world. And also that it had to do with sewing and that they were in my hometown. And I'm like, you know, I don't know that God could have made a more perfect ministry for me.


Jan 13:25

He's like, hitting you over the head with all of these things: Sew Powerful, Sew Powerful. Okay, so I think this next part is really, this really intrigues me. So you call Jason and Cinnamon and you make an appointment to come be interviewed because you've had such success with interviewing. I mean, you've had one interview in your life, right? When you were in college. Here was your second interview, you're gonna go talk to Jason and Cinnamon and in your story, you tell us how you got all dressed up. I mean, what was your thought process when you were getting ready to go over there?


Leslie 14:01

Well, I was like, well, I need to make an impression. So I had sewed up a bunch of purses with my best sewing skills. I think I had one that was designed as a Seahawks purse, you know, one of the local sports teams, which I just kind of did for fun. And then some, you know, which were really well sewn and, you know, put together and just, you know, some examples of my capabilities. I felt I needed a portfolio of purses, and then I, you know, dressed up I had my, not a briefcase, but a little portfolio of some notes and some things like that. I had a resume and, you know, was like, you know, this is going to be a very professional situation and I should treat it as such.


Jan 14:50

And so, give us a quick recap of what that meeting was like.


Leslie 14:55

Well, I didn't know it then but if any of you have met Cinnamon and Jason, you know that they are a very casual group or a couple of people. And so, you know, come to find out, at the time, they didn't really know what to make of me. And so I think Cinnamon did take a look at my purses, she opened them up and I was like, Oh, she's checking out the seams and seeing if they're straight, really examining my work. But I think she was just being polite and all that, but they were just thrilled to see me. And I remember at the end of the interview, Jason said, well, you're an answer to prayer.


Jan 15:44

So that's how you became volunteer number one,


Leslie 15:47

I believe it is, yes it is.


Jan 15:48

With sample purses, a resume and your work attire. Okay, well, why don't we take a quick break here and when we come back, we're going to explore what Leslie has done to really shaped the way Sew Powerful and the volunteers at Sew Powerful make their contribution. So we'll we'll see you on the other side.


Jan 16:11

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. And now back to our podcast.


Jan 17:18

Welcome back. We have been talking with Leslie Unruh, who is volunteer number one with Sew Powerful. Leslie has shared with us the story of her intriguing career and her educational background and how she came to find Sew Powerful and sort of drop in on, well I guess you had an appointment; you didn't drop in on Jason and Cinnamon, you had a formal business appointment with Jason and Cinnamon. And so that was in what year? That was in 2017 that you...


Leslie 17:51

Actually 2016


Jan 17:53

  1. So what kind of work were you doing as a volunteer for Sew Powerful?


Leslie 18:00

Well, it started out, one of my interests was in teaching the Sew Powerful purse making class and so I, and at this time, we only had the advanced pattern, so I tried teaching in a couple of different ways at the time. We tried holding some classes at the shop that Cinnamon and Jason were using to run their business out of, and that didn't work so well. Most of the people who came were my quilting friends and it just, we couldn't necessarily attract, it seemed like, very many local people. I think Sew Powerful was more, people were interested in doing, you know, that sewing in their homes.


Leslie 18:50

Eventually I have created some interest in local shops so I've taught at several of the local shops and once we get over this COVID pandemic I will be trying to set up some more classes in more shops. And so I love to provide, you know, go to a class and provide the kits and, you know, just help people through perhaps sewing their first purse so that then they can go and, home and sew more purses themselves, and, you know, maybe multiply and show their friends and then the ministry just keep, can keep growing and, in that way. So that was one of the things that I really definitely loved doing. The other...


Jan 19:42

You had sort of a lightbulb moment, too, when you thought "I know a way to reach even more people."


Leslie 19:48

Well, I thought that Cinnamon and Jason should consider having a booth at the Sewing and Stitchery Expo, which is one of the, well I believe it is THE largest consumer sewing show, and it's held right here in the local area, in Puyallup, Washington. And so I was trying to get them to consider having a booth there because we could reach 40,000 seamstresses in that show.


Jan 20:20

And so you did that the first year. What was your first year to do that?


Leslie 20:25

Well, in 2017, we started out and we split a booth, actually, between Cinnamon's for-profit business, Pixie Faire, where she sells doll clothes patterns, and Sew Powerful. And we found that to be a little confusing for people that they really kind of didn't understand, you know, what was what and all of that. It was maybe a little bit more doll clothes oriented than it was the Sew Powerful purse orientation. So then the next year, in 2018, we had a really African-themed booth. We had kind of a grass hut. And Jason had a woman, Ruth, from her church, she was from Africa, and she came dressed in African clothes and all of that. And so that was kind of an exciting part of it. And we were really able to catch, I think, people's attention, more so that second year. But that's what it's all about is learning as you go and what works for your particular situation.


Jan 21:34

And then you attended, so that was 2018. I met you in 2018 when you came to Houston for the Houston Quilt Festival, right?


Leslie 21:44

Yes. So after that year, I think Jason said, I now realize this is our target audience. These are the ladies that sew and that have fabric. We really need to do more of this. So that particular year, in the fall, they were comfortable with going to the Santa Clara Quilt Show. So we did that, I believe in October. And I had been to Houston. And after we had been doing the Sewing and Stitchery Expo, I said the real show you need to get to is Houston because that's the largest quilting show in the country. That one and Paducah would be two that I think you should have on your list because you would really get a lot of ladies there. So they were adventurous enough. And we got into Houston. And so that was the first year we did the Houston quilt show.


Jan 22:39

Yeah, so the rest is history. Had we not had COVID, I think we were going to be at about 20 different quilt shows this year. Some have been canceled as we speak right now. Some are still on the books. We probably want to back up though, because in 2017, sort of an unusual request from Jason came your way, right?


Leslie 23:00

Yes. You know, I had not been thinking that I would go to Zambia. It was not really on my, at the time, it wasn't really on my heart that I really wanted to go to Africa. And, so I was just, and even though in 2016, I followed the group that had gone to Africa. I was like, why aren't they posting more pictures? I want to know what's going on. But I didn't think it was really, you know, for me, and so I was just gonna not be involved in that. And then Jason asked if I would come up with a project to work with the seamstresses in Zambia on, and, you know, they were thinking they could just take it. I could create it and they would take it and Cinnamon would work with them.


Leslie 23:46

But then I was starting to think well maybe I should go to help them do this. And so we worked on a project to make zippered pouches for the (Oh, I'm sorry, it just skipped my mind) the Angels that support Sew Powerful. Atelier Angels. And I did the little embroidery of that logo and then we made a zippered pouch and included the embroidery part into the zippered pouch. So I taught them how to make a pouch and how to do French seams and all of that and it was a lot of fun. And I asked my husband to go with us so that he could go and be a part of this experience and be, you know, aware of what was going on with Sew Powerful so that he would, you know, have that experience along with me.


Jan 24:39

And so you went, you had a very productive time. Day five of that trip was the purse distribution day and something really remarkable happened. You want to give us the lowdown on that?


Leslie 24:54

Yes, we were taking a rickety bus ride out to the Pakachele school. This was not a school, well, it's still in Ngombe Compound, but it wasn't, you know, doing it right there at the Needs Care School. So they were starting to branch out to the other 13 or so schools that they're supporting in Ngombe Compound. And so we were going to the school and we arrive at the school, and Cinnamon and Esther start putting, pulling the purses out of the boxes of purses that we are providing. And they're laying them all out on the table.


Leslie 25:27

And we were asked to bring purses, as well, to Zambia that we had sewed that year, so that we knew that we would have some purses to give directly to the girls. And so that we could talk to some of the girls who would receive our purses. And so we had some of our own that we had brought that were also being put out on the table but then they had many more that were in these boxes that they were pulling out, that had been loaded up with all the supplies that we put inside the purses. And I look over at the table, and right in the center of the table of one, of the area where they pull things out of the boxes, was that very first purse I made. I was just like, I can't believe it. That's my first purse. And I saw it there and it was a distinctive fabric. It was a fabric my mom had used for the back of a quilt and she had some extras and I'd made the purse out of it because it was just so pretty. It had flowers and butterflies and was really bright and vibrant. So it was so easy to pick out. I looked around for my mom's purse too and I didn't see that. But I saw my purse. I was just like ,God arranged my purse to be there when I was there for a purse distribution It was just like so cool.


Jan 26:47

And what is the name of the young lady, do you remember, who picked your purse?


Leslie 26:51

Imelda. She picked out the purse. And it was like, oh, as soon as the distribution is over and all the girls get their purses, I'm gonna run over and tell her that I made that purse.


Jan 27:05

But what happened?


Leslie 27:06

Well, she got the purse. And before all the other girls are done getting their purses, you know, the very first thing they do is they pull out the note card. Because, you know, that's kind of what, they want to see who made their purse, what did they say to them? And they want to compare with the girl that's next to them. What did yours say? What did yours say, you know, and so all the other girls are getting their purses and so as you're pulling out the note and so she gets the note card and I see her looking at the note card and she just kind of sticks it back in the purse. And then...go ahead.


Jan 27:40

No, no, no, tell us, keep going.


Leslie 27:42

And so finally the purse distribution is over. And I'm thinking okay, I'm gonna go over and see the girl got my purse, but she makes like a beeline for Cinnamon. I don't know how she knew this. But the girl says to Cinnamon, "This purse came from Auburn, Washington. Do you know who made this purse? You have to know, it's from Auburn." and Cinnamon says, "Oh, well. I don't really know if I know." But just as I, as she was saying that, I came up to her and said to, said to her, "Oh, I made that purse. It was my very first purse." And so I got to meet her. And then she says to me, "Please, will you sign my note card? I want to have your name." And so I felt like a rock star. And here I go, I go autographing my little note card that I had made for her with my name so that she would know who made the purse for her.


Jan 28:41

Oh, and you know, that's sort of an interesting thought for us, as we do make, write our note cards that the girls do want to know specifically who was the one that spent, you know, their time and their fabric to make something, such a gift of love? Well, you conclude your story by talking about the surprising way that this exchange touched your heart. Can you talk about that a little bit?



Yes. I, at the time, was thinking well, you know, that's really kind of nice that she wants to know my name and put it on there. And then I was like, well, I had always thought here, you know, we're the ones, the purse makers, that are doing all the giving in this exchange, and we are making the purses and we're sending them and all the effort is on our side, on the giving side. But I believe that the reason that she wanted to know my name was that so she could pray for me, because that was the one thing that she can get back to me. And so it isn't really a one-way transaction. It really is, I believe, a two-way transaction and she's giving what she can, back to us. And so I believe I am the recipient of many, many, many prayers that these little Zambian angels are sending up to heaven on my behalf, for the gratitude of making the purse for them. And so I really feel very blessed. And I just get such great joy out of making those purses. And I, it's just humbling to me to know that they are praying for all these purse makers across the world.


Jan 30:30

Well, Leslie, thank you so much for sharing your inspirational story. And I think you've really given us a new perspective on what it does mean to make a purse. So, thank you very much. We'll talk to you soon and stay safe and well.


Leslie 30:46

Well, thank you very much. And I've been my pleasure to do this and just wish you God's blessing, Jan.


Jan 30:53

Thank you, and same to you. Bye bye.


Leslie 30:55



Jan 30:57

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