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A Passion for Africa with Shirley Utz


From the time she was a teen, Shirley Utz has had a passion for Africa. In this episode we travel with Shirley to places like Tanzania, South Africa and of course, Zambia. Starting with her formal education, to her early days making purses for Sew Powerful, traveling to Zambia and now serving as the Sew Powerful Regional Coordinator of Facebook, Shirley's passion for Africa remains steadfast.


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.

Season’s Harvest Restaurant, 17303 Shaw Rd, Cypress, TX 77429;


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 00:20

Hello, today we have the pleasure of speaking with Shirley Utz. Shirley is, her official title for Sew Powerful is Regional Coordinator for Facebook, but I call Shirley the heart and soul of Sew Powerful. And after we talk with her today you'll understand why. How are you today, Shirley?


Shirley Utz, Guest 00:41

Pretty good, Jan. How are you doing?


Jan 00:43

How I'm great. I'm great. We're talking to you because, well, because you're Shirley, number one. But number two, you wrote a story for the We Are Sew Powerful book that was published in both the first edition and again in the second edition. And the title of your story is A Passion for Africa. And in the story, you talk about that you developed a passion for Africa as a young girl. What happened there? Tell us about it.


Shirley 01:16

I don't know exactly how old I was, it was sometime between 12 and 15 years old, and the church I went to, a missionary and his wife attended and showed pictures of, you know, slides of Kenya. And, I don't know, my heart just palpitated over Kenya and the beauty that was there and seeing the people and the faces and this, like, okay, Africa, just write on my heart, you know. And it's hard to explain the passion that evolved for it. I started reading about Africa, learning more about Africa. My degree in history concentrated on Africa and the Middle East. So, you know, it just, it kept growing.


Jan 02:15

So when was your first opportunity to actually go to the African continent?


Shirley 02:21

It was in 2007. I had been attending a church in the suburbs of Washington, DC because my husband was in the military and he was stationed at the Pentagon, and met some really lovely people there. And the year that we left and moved out of the, out of state to a new place, my friend Gail called me and said, Would you be interested in going with us to Africa? Yeah. She says we'll pray about and I'm like, No, Yeah. So I went with that team. I was actually involved in, not really doing a whole lot except that, you know, in the physical sense. It was more of a prayer-based type of group and I was involved in that. Went to smaller places in Tanzania.


Shirley 03:26

We started out when we went to Africa, we started out in Nairobi for a couple of days to kind of get ourselves in sync with the time and all of that. We stayed at a convent that had rooms to rent which was really very interesting; beautiful little place, very quiet, in the heart of Nairobi. And then we took a very small plane that is, that was affiliated with a group called Africa And One's Mission. And they flew us there. It was propeller plane, you know, it didn't have a whole lot of space and everything. And we had our luggage and we had our people and I sat directly behind the pilot. So I was watching all of these little gauges. It was, it was really quite fun. Sa one of the biggest deals was seeing Mount Kilimanjaro as we flew into the country, and then we had to stop at the airport that was just outside Mount Kilimanjaro to register as people coming into the country. And then we flew further on to a little village called Singita. And I was in the Singita for about four or five days and then went to an even smaller village further east, called Kiamboi.


Jan 04:49

Well, now back up. When you were at that first village you just, describe what it looked like. What were the buildings? Who were the people?


Shirley 04:58

Well, it was... Everything centered around the little Anglican church that was there. And the streets were not paved, they were red clay, kind of rutted and everything. There was a taxi service. We had, we had a taxi that would take us back and forth to the guest house that we stayed at, which was a little bit further outside the town. One thing I remember very clearly was a little shop where we could go and check email. Because this was back before having the smart phones and stuff. We could go and check our email. And it was all, you know, the dial up, very, very, very slow. But, we could do it. And my first granddaughter was born while I was there. So it was fun to be able to at least see her picture.


Shirley 05:52

Then from Singita, went I went to Kiamboi, which was a smaller village. It was more of a rural type of place where there were little farming enterprises going on. I have a picture that I took from inside the church and it was through these windows that had wooden shutters to them on the inside. And it was of the pastor's wife out digging for potatoes in the soil, you know, handmade hoe. So it was just really interesting.


Shirley 06:26

And then the next stop, and final stop, was Manyoni, which was where the cathedral for the Anglican Church was located. And so it was a bigger, bigger city. They had a nice market place and that type of thing. I do remember going, a couple of my friends and I went to a place and got ice cream. You had to walk up steps that were about two feet high. And getting up those steps was really, really, really hard. But we got our ice cream.


Jan 06:56

Had to work for that one.


Shirley 06:57

That's right.


Jan 06:58

Okay, so that was 2007. In your story you talk about something happened in 2015 where all of a sudden, I guess that was too long of a gap. You wanted to go back to Africa.



Oh, yeah. So I mean, from the minute I got back to the United States from Tanzania, I wanted to go back again. And I thought that it would most likely be to Tanzania, or to Kenya again; it wasn't. But what happened in 2015, I had started sewing purses and,


Jan 07:34

for Sew Powerful, right?


Shirley 07:36

No, not for Sew Powerful


Jan 07:37

Not for Sew Powerful?


Shirley 07:38

No, just learning how to sew purses through a couple of Facebook groups. And there was one particular group that was kind of a catch-all for different types of sewing. The administrator for that group posted a link to Sew Powerful and said, look at this, this might be something some of you might want to do. And when I looked at it, I was like, Yep, this is it, because it was sewing, it was sewing purses, which I was really getting into. And it was for Africa. Who couldn't, you know, who wouldn't want to do that? And it was, it just struck a chord. At the same time I had been praying God, I've got the skills, and I've got fabric, but I don't really have anybody to sew for. I mean, I can only make so many purses for myself. What can I do? It's like this fell right into my lap. I was so excited about it. And Kylie Gersakowski, who's the, who was for a long time the Regional Coordinator in Australia. I kind of pinged her and I said, What do you think about this, Kylie? And she said, Oh, I'm starting a group for this. And it's like, how, how coincidental is that?


Jan 08:56

Now how do you know Kylie?


Shirley 08:57

From her group, Little Moo Designs.


Jan 09:00

Oh, Okay, I see.


Shirley 09:01

I have a couple, I've made a couple of her bags, and we just connected via Facebook.


Jan 09:07

And so you were internet friends?


Shirley 09:09

Yes. Yes. And so Kylie started the group. I was one of the first people to join, and we just, you know, took off from there. And I remember my first purse. Oh, my goodness. I think I asked 14 billion questions and I, I cried a few times. But I eventually got one made, and I was really happy about it. And then, you know, I had this goal because this was like, August and the deadline was October 1, and I had a goal of like 25 purses. Didn't get to do 25 purses because as soon as I started sewing purses, I got this really bad eye infection. I went to the doctor about it and they gave me eyedrops, it got worse, had to go to the ophthalmologist and eventually they decided, oh, you're allergic to preservatives in eye drops. And as soon as we've got that cleared up, I was able to sew again, but I only got 10 made that year.


Jan 10:13

Okay, so that's 2015, right?


Jan 10:17



Jan 10:18

And so you were very inspired, got your love of Africa, you have the history of having made the trip to Tanzania. So what did you do when they announced that there was going to be a trip to Zambia in 2016?


Shirley 10:34

Let me see, I think Jason had mentioned something about it in the purse project group that there would be a trip and I was like, Okay, I'm waiting, I'm waiting, I'm waiting. And it came, he finally sent out an email about that in December of that year, and I sent in my deposit, like, the next day. And we, apparently there were quite a few people who wanted to go. So there were two trips, then. One was for May, which I was scheduled to go on. And one was for July. A lot, a large number of the people that were in the May group were from a home group, from a California church, and one of their members got sick. And the group decided, well, we're not going to do the trip this year, then we'll wait. And so one other person that had been scheduled for that trip and I were then rescheduled for July, and I was so disappointed. I was like, Oh, I really, really wanted to, you know, the sooner the better type of thing. And then May rolls around, and my mother-in-law died right after Mother's Day that year. And I was like, Well, this was the time I would have been supposed to be going. So it really worked out great that from that standpoint, that I was able to go in July instead.


Jan 11:57

Well, so before we get to the trip, while you're starting to do this, you're starting to reach out to people in the community and tell them about Sew Powerful.


Shirley 12:07



Jan 12:07

So you and I have a favorite restaurant, because actually Shirley and I live about a 20-25 minute drive away from each other. Tell our listeners about Season's Harvest Restaurant and the connection you made there.


Shirley 12:23

Oh, I loved it because it's organic food. It was all prepared right then when you, after you ordered. It was quaint little environment and everything. I met the owners, Joanne and Beckett. And Beckett is a pastor of a little church that met at the restaurant on Sundays. And, you know, just got to talking with them. And then they moved. And their restaurant is located about a mile from my house. It's, they renovated a log cabin and have all this eclectic furniture that is for seating and everything. There are chickens wandering around outside, they have goats. They have a garden so they've got a lot of fresh produce. And it's just a really wonderful place to go. But one day, Joanne and I got to talking and she said, I told her about Sew Powerful and how I was doing that. And she had a friend who was a missionary in India, and, you know, just all the little connections there. And she said her family would like for my two girls to learn how to sew. And I said well, I'd be happy to teach. We talked about it quite a bit and never actually happened. But I was really excited by the prospect of it. Lovely, lovely family that I still go there to eat.


Jan 13:52

So you've been visiting the restaurant Season's Harvest, we'll give them a little free plug here


Shirley 13:58



Jan 13:59

If you're the Houston area, be sure and stop in.


Shirley 14:01



Jan 14:02

But you're also preparing for the trip. At first you thought it was going to be May but for you it got postponed to July. I love what you did with your church to get them involved in your upcoming travels. Tell us about that.


Shirley 14:18

Well, the church used SignUpGenius for all sorts of things, you know, like, sign up for a potlucks, sign up for this.


Jan 14:25

Is that an app? I'm not familiar with it.


Shirley 14:28

It is, it's an app that's for computer and for your phone. And it's a way to coordinate people signing up for events, whether it's for, like I said, for potlucks. And in my case it was I decided that I would set up a SignUpGenius for them to make donations of sewing equipment and school supplies that I could take with me to to Zambia.


Jan 14:57

Hold that thought. We're going to take a quick break and when we come back, we're going to find out what happened at Shirley's church and whether her SignUpGenius app was effective. So we'll check back with her in just a moment.


Jan 15:14

If you've gotten the second edition of the We Are Sew Powerful book? This updated version of the original best seller (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 16:16

And now back to our podcast.


Jan 16:19

Welcome back. We've been speaking with Shirley Utz who is the Regional Coordinator for Facebook, and Shirley has been sharing with us her passion for Africa. And she's preparing to go on her first trip to Zambia with Sew Powerful, and in the meantime, she's rallied the members of her church to make donations for things that Shirley can take to help the seamstresses in Zambia. So Shirley take it from there. You set up the signup app


Shirley 16:51

I set up the SignUpGenius (app is probably not the right word for this, but we'll say app because I can't think of the other word). I set up the sign up for it, and I did things like 10 pairs of Gingher scissors, 10 packs of paper clips, 10 journals, different quantities for different things. And people really, really got behind it. There was one woman, I think, who purchased every single pair of scissors that I needed for the, to take with me. And it was some little thing that they could do even if they didn't sew.


Jan 17:29

Right. Some people gave cash though, right?


Shirley 17:32

Why did they want a KAM Snap Press and the KAM Snaps? What were those for?


Shirley 17:32

Some people gave cash. And I accumulated enough cash that I was just going to send to Jason and at the same time he was like, we want to take some KAM Snap Presses to the ladies. And I said well, I've got the cash here to buy one. I don't have any room in my suitcase for them. So I'll send you the cash, you order them and you send them to somebody else in the group who's got room in a suitcase. And so the KAM Snap Presses got sent to Kathy Simonsen, who then buried them in her suitcase.


Shirley 17:36

Originally, the shields for the pads were, the ladies were using Velcro to connect around the underwear and Velcro, as you know, can be kind of scratchy. Cinnamon and Jason decided that KAM snaps would be a better choice. And so we wanted the KAM snap presses to take to the ladies so that they could start doing snaps on the, on the shields. Worked really, really well. They learned how to use it fast.


Jan 18:44

Okay, so along comes July and you're you're headed off to the airport and tell us a little bit about the trip before. Did you have some interim stops before you got to Zambia?


Shirley 18:57

Yes, everybody was flying from different places and I was on my own and I flew to Dubai. And the large portion of the team came in about the same time. So I sat and waited for them in the Dubai airport. And I had seen Jason and Cinnamon's picture so when I saw them I was like, okay, that's my group. And then we took a shuttle from the airport to a hotel for the night. And so we had a nice little buffet that we went to. We had, you know, our rooms that we could get some sleep for about six hours before we had to go back to the airport. It was, it was a nice break in that trip because when you're flying in the basic class you don't have a way to prop your legs up. You don't have a, you know, it's just, it's not the most comfortable for a long trip.


Jan 20:01

How long is it from Houston to Dubai?


Shirley 20:04

I think that was about eight hours.


Jan 20:06

Oh, Okay.


Shirley 20:07

And then, and then the next morning, we went back to the airport, and we flew from there to Lusaka, Zambia. And that was another 10-11 hours, I believe.


Jan 20:21

Oh goodness.


Shirley 20:22

So if we'd flown directly to Lusaka, it would have been a really, really, really long trip.


Jan 20:27



Shirley 20:28

So we had that. It was it was a pleasant break in it. And we also had a chance to talk with each other and get to know each other because in many cases, we were all new to this. Christina, who had flown from Canada, had gotten there before I had. She was already at the hotel, so you know, we got to meet her then as well.


Jan 20:53

So who else was on the trip with you?


Shirley 20:56

Oh my goodness. I had, let's see, Christina Porter, Kathy Simonsen, Irene, Jason, Cinnamon.


Jan 21:06



Shirley 21:07

Yes. Tori met us, though. She had been doing a, her trip to Ethiopia through her church, and had flown from Ethiopia to Lusaka on her own. So we didn't meet her until we were in Lusaka. And then there was a group from California that were friends of Jason's and names are escaping me right now. It's been a while. There was Tom and his wife, I want to say, Amy, but I think that's wrong. And her sister, Andrea, and then Tom and his wife's four kids.


Jan 21:43

Oh, children.


Shirley 21:43

Some were boys, and one was a young lady about 10 or 11 years old, I think.


Jan 21:51

Okay, so you get to the Lusaka Airport and at some point, now, it's going to be your first foray into the Ngombe Compound. Describe that first entrance.


Shirley 22:04

It's interesting, because Lusaka itself is really a rather pretty, pretty city. You, you drive through, they've got nice streets, there are walls around different houses, big and beautiful. And then all of a sudden, you enter this area that is Ngombe. And it's very squalid living conditions, you know, like, a family of six or seven might be in this little one room, that is just pieces of board thrown up to kind of protect from the elements and that type of thing. So it was just a very stark difference between what was outside the compound what was inside the compound.


Jan 22:48

In your story, you talk about what you very first see when you when you get to the beginning of the compound.


Shirley 22:55

Yes. And it was one of the things that struck me both going in and coming out, because there's this deep ravine that's used pretty much as a landfill by the people who live in Ngombe. And so, you know, it's just trash and smelly and all of that, but growing up the sides of that ravine, are these beautiful bougainvillea bushes that are in full bloom. And it struck me as sort of how even in the trashiness of life there can be beauty and there can be hope, and there can be something to kind of make us strive for something better. So I just, I keep seeing that picture in my mind, still, of that and the beauty from ashes type of


Jan 23:48

You've had some personal trips to Africa since you went to Zambia, right?


Shirley 23:53



Jan 23:54

Where did you go?


Shirley 23:55

My husband and I went to South Africa. We went to Johannesburg and Pretoria and then we also went over to Kruger National Park on the other side of the country. And we spent a little time in the tiny Kingdom of Swaziland, now known as Eswatini. It was, no it was a different experience because I was going as a tourist not as a, not as somebody that was trying to help people or you know, be involved in people's lives although I find it just how I am. I start being nosy, trying to find out where people are coming from and, you know, like our waitresses at the hotel and that type of things.


Jan 24:39

Shirley, what would you say to people who are thinking about volunteering for Sew Powerful, making a purse? Maybe some of our volunteers who are active, maybe considering a trip to Zambia. What advice would you give?


Shirley 24:52

Well, first of all, people worry a great deal about their skills in making a purse and we now have that beginner pattern that is really for a true beginner and you don't have to worry about it being perfect. There's a girl at the other end who has so very, very little and she will appreciate your creation. You just pour your heart into it, make it with love, and the love shows through. It's just how it is. As far as making the trip, if you can, it's worth every single penny to go and to meet the seamstresses, meet, see what's happening in that compound, meet the people, connect with them, and see where they're coming from, and what their hopes and their dreams are.


Shirley 25:50

Because like people everywhere, they have hopes and dreams. And then some of the girls that we had talked with when I was, when I was there hoped to be doctors or nurses or accountants or teachers. And it's like, they have dreams, and we can help them accomplish that. We can help by our donations, we can help by making purses that helped them stay in school. We can be part of a solution for helping to empower these girls, empower women, and also to help put a dent in the poverty that exists in this one place. We can't, we aren't called to do everything. We're all called to do something.


Jan 26:34

And one last thing. Why don't you give a plug for the Facebook group, where you're the administrator.


Shirley 26:40

Oh, yes, yes, yes, the Facebook group. We have 3700 people, I think is about the number right now, in our Sew Powerful Purse Project group on Facebook. We have lots of tips, lots of ideas, we have the fabulous Sue who puts up a challenge every Sunday, a new challenge just to get us thinking outside our little boxes of purses that we make. And we have a lot of fun just getting to know each other.


Jan 27:17

So what is the name of the group? And how do people join?


Shirley 27:20

It's the Sew Powerful Purse Project group, you just go and click Join. And one of the admins of which I am one will let you in. We don't ask questions. We just, you're in if you're interested.


Jan 27:35

But I have to say that this group on Facebook is one of the friendliest, kindest, most supportive groups in, that I've ever encountered. It's really a wonderful, wonderful place to spend your Facebook time I have to say,


Shirley 27:50

Thank you. That's one of the tones that we want to set, that kindness is very important.


Jan 27:56

All right, well, we're gonna leave it there. And Shirley, thank you so much for sharing your African passion with us and I think we have a better understanding of why you feel that way. And we thank you for everything you do for Sew Powerful and Iook forward to talking with you again soon.


Shirley 28:13

Well, thank you for having this opportunity, Jan.


Jan 28:16

Okay, we'll talk to you soon. Bye bye.


Shirley 28:18

Okay, bye bye.


Jan 28:21

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