A type-A, CEO with little time for giving, Christina Porter finds herself and her family in a totally different state of mind after a devastating fire destroys her home, including her sewing room and everything in it. We explore how this life changing event became a heart changing experience. Spoiler alert - Sew Powerful plays a big part!
Our Burning House with Christina Porter
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 00:05
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.
Hello, today we are talking with Christina Porter. Christina is the President and General Manager of a global pharmaceutical company. And we're talking with Christina because she submitted a story to Sew Powerful and it was selected for publication in both the first and second editions of the We Are Sew Powerful book. The title of her story is Our Burning Home. And I guess that gives a pretty big hint about what we're going to be talking about today. But first, Christina, let me compliment you on such a well-written story. I mean, it's full of imagery, and it's even self deprecating in places. But wow, it's just really engaging. So we're so glad to have you. How are you today, Christina?
Christina Porter 01:09
Thanks, doing very well. Thanks very much. And I'm excited to be here.
Oh, good. We're delighted that you're here. I want to start off by reading a sentence that you wrote at the beginning of your story, number one, to set the stage and number two, just to demonstrate how well the story is written. But this is what you said: "I am a career-minded, type A personality, President and General manager at a global pharmaceutical company who travels on business a good part of the year; an insomniac, perfectionist and nag." Why did you describe yourself that way?
Because I am. I, yes, I have been focusing on my career for a good number of years now, along with raising two girls, I'll say. But it's been an important part of my life and so that part's true. And because my job is global in nature and takes place all across Canada and the US, and we have a head office in France, I do travel quite a bit. And probably I'm an insomniac, because I'm busy thinking about work a lot, but also about how to make things perfect. As to my perfectionist description, I think I was raised to have a high standard, and try and achieve that all the time. So probably, I lay awake a lot at night, trying to think about how to make things the best they can be. And I think that my family would say that I bother them a lot to try and be the same. And to try and live up to those same standards. So that's where the nag part came in.
Okay, well, that's a pretty good answer and not unexpected from what I thought you might say. I'm intrigued. I'm retired, and at the time I retired, I could probably count on one hand the number of women who were heads of global corporations and now here I have the honor of speaking with you. Tell us a little bit about your background, your education, and, you know, what is the career path that led to becoming the head of this company?
First I should clarify that I'm the head, it's a global company, and I'm the head of the Canadian arm of it.
We'll take it.
Okay. What led me here: so I went to university and have an honors degree in business administration. I think that my path was set off because my dad was an entrepreneur and so I, and I greatly admired my father and so I think I set off on a path to sort of follow what he did, and that's how I ended up in business to begin with.
What did your dad do?
Really he owned a real estate company. Yeah. So they sold residential real estate and then he also had a residential development through his company. Yeah. Sorry, go ahead.
So you went to university got a degree in business?
In business, yeah.
And what did you do?
And actually after that, I traveled quit a bit. I didn't really start working for a few years. I took two separate long trips, one to travel to India and Thailand and Nepal. And then another one I took for a year, and traveled all around the world to Australia and throughout Southeast Asia and Africa. And after I got that travel bug out of my system, sort of, I decided that I wanted to work in an area that allowed me to travel as well as, sort of, starting to pursue my business career. So yeah, the first job I got was actually at a trucking company. But I liked it, because the scope was all of Ontario, the province that I live in. And so I got my company car, and I began traveling around and then after that, I moved into telecom, so I started selling cell phones, when that was an early business, and then just really got the bug for sales and marketing and visiting customers. And yeah, and then after that, I started working in pharmaceuticals. And that's the career path that I maintain. So I actually started in sales in pharmaceutical.
Well, that's, that is very, very cool career paths. I like that a lot. The travel sounds phenomenal. Okay. But besides doing all these, having all these career achievements, you also tell us in your story that you sew. How did you how did you learn to sew and what kind of things were you sewing while you were busy with your career?
So I learned how to sew in Home Ec class. I think that's a bygone thing now, but it was actually one of my favorite classes. So Mrs. Elliott taught me how to sew in Home Ec. And I really didn't do much until after I got married and had kids. So I did stay home for three years when I had my two little girls. And during that time, I was looking to be productive. So I pulled out the old sewing machine and started making clothes for them and just things for the house, curtains and such things like that. And then I really enjoyed that. And I do have quite a creative part of my mind that I think is very important to nurture that part, I guess, in order to be well rounded and to have good mental health. So I really started just doing more and more creative things like that.
But when I really started sewing mostly was, the girls both became competitive dancers. So I have one daughter who's really, really small so none of her costumes fit. And I wanted to make sure that she looked good on stage. And then I started altering her costumes, and then started, the dance, the director of the dance studio, noticed that I was able to retrofit a lot of these costumes. And so I started working with her to sell costumes for ballet productions, like the Nutcracker and then other productions that they would do for competition. So every year, they would do a big production and I would sew the costumes for that and work on the sets. And that's when it really kicked in.
Wow. Yes, yes, I can see that you don't do anything small, you take it all in. Okay, well,
I like challenge.
Yes, it sounds that way. Well, and speaking of challenge, I want to take you to the time right before Christmas in 2014. And something very dramatic happened for you and your family. Take us back to that.
Okay, so it was a dramatic time anyway, because I had just gotten this job with this company and my job was to start the Canadian affiliates of this company, to bring the company to Canada. So I got that in October and so I was very busy working on proper licensing and regulations and everything to get this company started and then in December is when this fire happened. So wh-, so yeah, we woke up. I think it was three o'clock in the morning. I heard my daughter screaming (her bedroom is in our lower level) and heard her screaming and then I heard the fire alarm go off. And...
How old were the girls at that time?
So Ellie was in grade 11 so she must have been about 15. And my younger daughter Piper was in grade eight, so 13.
Wow, teen years, very influential time. So,
So you hear the smoke alarms going off and in your story you say you ran out in your bare feet.
Right. So we gathered everyone up, knocking on the bedroom doors, and got everyone outside. I called 911 and said (which is our emergency number) and said, we're having (I remember this part so clearly) I said, we're having a fire. And then we went outside. It was December so we were up to our ankles in snow, and then just watching complete silence outside. The snowflakes were falling. And then just looking, I had the two girls, one under each arm, and looking at the house and realizing we're not having a fire. The whole house is on fire. You could see every, all the smoke and everything pouring out from the windows. And that's when it really hit us, like such an eerie experience to have complete silence. Just the snow quietly falling and the snow, and the smoke pouring out of the windows and realizing it's not A fire. The whole place is on fire.
Wow. And so how did you spend the rest of that night? What happened?
So the fire trucks came and our neighbor graciously came out and got us and brought us into his home. And we waited there for the firemen to do their work. A real moment of graciousness, I think, in one way, was when one of the firemen, we had a cat and we also have this hamster. It's all of us, I don't know, felt so bad for the hamster because we knew the cat could escape. But the hamster was stuck there in its cage. And then so we told the fireman and he came over, all covered in smoke once the fire was put out, carrying this filled cage that the hamster lived and it was just such a moment of real humanity, I felt. Yeah. So then once that was over, they... anyways, go ahead.
Well, no that, so I mean, was the house a total, it was totally burned down?
No. So the inside was all completely burned. But it's a brick house and the four outside walls remained. So we were able to rebuild and have the house look pretty much from the outside, the same, anyway.
And how long did that take? How long were you out of your home?
Gosh. So now you're..
Six or seven months. We moved back in at the end of the summer.
You're dealing with a brand new job with a lot of pressure, and you're out of your home and trying to deal with insurance companies and the trauma of all of this. That must have been a difficult time.
You know, I can barely remember it. It was just like that, like it was the constant state of adrenaline, trying to... And the hardest part was trying to keep things as normal as possible for the kids without them knowing quite everything that was happening. But my husband was amazing. He did most of the dealing with the insurance company and found us a new place to live. And yeah, we moved into to an apartment and tried to rebuild and try and keep, you know, get the kids to school and have their school understand what they had been through. But try to support them through it and they continued to dance. So that, was that was quite good. And I continue, and then I wanted to sew because that's the thing that calms me down. And because all their costumes were burned; we had to get those costumes back so that they could compete. So that's when I bought the sewing machine and wanted to sew. It was, it felt like the only thing that could be comforting. And yeah, at that time.
In your story you talk about that you replaced everything in the sewing room but there's two sentences I want to read. I mean, to me, this is one of the more moving parts of the whole thing. You said there was no comfort in these new things. Every spool of thread I lost in the fire held a story.
It was so true. I thought, Okay, I have insurance money, I'm going to go and buy all this great new stuff. And so I got it all. And then I just remember sitting on the floor in this apartment with it all laid out in front of me and I was organizing it all into my new sewing kit. And it was awful because there was no life in any of it. You know what it's like, being somebody who sews. Every color of thread that you buy, you buy it for a project, every little piece of thing belongs to something important that you made, and you made it with love, probably, and cared about it a lot. And when you open it, it's like opening a treasure box. All these stories come out: that dance recital, that outfit I made those curtains, that graduation ceremony, that, you know, it all just sort of floats out when you open the lid of your sewing basket and I opened the lid and it was just nothing, just nothing.
All that had burned.
All that had burned.
So at some point, you found, or Sew Powerful found you, I'm not sure who found who there.
To be honest, I really believe that God led me somehow to that. I cannot tell you how I found it. I don't remember, whatsoever, how I found it.
Okay, you know, we're going to take a break here because the second half of the story now revolves around Sew Powerful and how the circumstances in Christina's life led her to what she does for Sew Powerful now. So let's pause for a break.
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've been speaking with Christina Porter, who has been sharing the story of how her family home burned and all of her memories, her sewing memories, went up in smoke with it. So Christina, sometime you got introduced to Sew Powerful, you don't recall exactly how, some of us have that same experience. What did you do for Sew Powerful first? Were you making purses?
Yeah, I just started, I just downloaded, I just downloaded the product. And I thought wow, this is something that I could do, that could have meaning, maybe it could have meaning. So I started sewing purses and really, that was it. My first purse was extraordinarily ugly. I can remember that.
I'll bet that's not true, but we'll have to take your word for it.
No, it was bad. I used a scarf, like I just wanted to try it with some, I don't know what, something I picked up at the dollar store; I think it was ugly. But I tried it and I just felt like, I don't know, it all came together, like the experience of it, how with my girls and how we had had such a tragedy but yet we're so privileged to be able to get through it and how they were able to continue to go to school throughout it all and that this would just be a blip in our life, like it wouldn't...
So Christina did your early global travels play a part in how Sew Powerful was meaningful to you, and your understanding of how the purses were going to be used?
Yes, it absolutely did because I, of all the travels that I did, I loved Africa and felt very very connected to the place. And actually, before I came across Sew Powerful, was trying to find a way that I could contribute that would have something to do with Africa. So it felt like when I learned about Sew Powerful that it was a coming together of many of the things that I love, and many of the things that I was appreciative for, that my children have been able to benefit from in terms of their education, and that they can be whatever they want to be. It doesn't matter about them being a girl. So my passion for the, for education for the girls, for opportunity for girls. And yes, absolutely my affinity for Africa that came from my early travels.
Well, you know, you finish your story by saying that you hoped to make a trip to Zambia, and that's where the story ended. But that's where your written story ended but that's not, that's not where your story ended, because you did make a trip to Zambia, didn't you?
I did, I was so lucky to be able to be, to join Jason and Cinnamon on a trip in 2016 to Zambia, and it was an amazing experience. I felt very privileged to be able to join.
Yes. And I understand that was the same trip that Shirley and Irene, and Tori and Kathy, as well as probably a few other people were on that trip, right?
Yeah. That was the one and it was, it was a very fun time. And those women are very inspiring to be around.
So you flew from your home to, did you make that stop in Dubai and then on to Lusaka? Was that the itinerary for you?
Yes, that's right. So yeah, I flew to Dubai from Toronto, and then met the gang at the airport there and then we traveled to Lusaka together.
Okay, and so I understand that the next day is when you actually went to the Ngombe Compound. Sort of give us your impressions of what that, and when you initially get into the compound. What was that like? Was it what you expected? Or was that different?
It was what I expected, but what was shocking about it is that it's right in the middle of a bustling city. So I expected the compound to be poverty stricken, of course, but I didn't expect that that kind of an environment would be allowed to grow in the middle of a city that appeared to be much more prosperous and bustling and thriving than what I expected. I sort of expected that this would be bad-ish suburb of an already in-trouble city, but it didn't feel like that at all. It felt like a thriving city. And then with this in the mid-, right in the middle of it, that was what was shocking to me.
And you met Esther, who is the project manager for our operations there and heads up the Needs Care School. Describe Esther. What were your dealings with her?
Well, she's definitely a powerhouse. She is beautiful, huge smile, welcoming, warm and smart as a whip. You can tell. She's always, always looking for opportunity. Always thinking about how to make things good for the community and the best for her girls and just so much intelligence behind her eyes and so much warmth. She was amazing to me.
And did you get to participate in the purse distribution while you were there?
We did. So it was really fun. We all set our purses up on a table and Esther did her training to the girls and to explain about how to use the products to manage their menstrual cycle, and had them do the oath that they would continue to go to school now that they had these products available to them. And then the girls got to come up and choose their purses. And it was just very heartwarming to see right there, face to face with the people who whose lives you hopefully have made a difference. And they were sweet and excited and grateful and, and funny. They traded their purses around and they were, Yeah.
And those girls would have probably been maybe a little younger but close in age to your daughters, right?
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
And did you get to meet any of the seamstresses that work in the sewing Co Op?
Yeah, we worked with all of them. So we cut out patterns with them, we talked about some of the issues that they were having or ways that they could do things faster. We brainstormed on how to, like, some sort of process improvements and we worked alongside them. I remember Shirley showing them how to use the knitting machine so they could make these sweaters and we held, some of them bring their children, just little babies strapped on their back, while they're while they're working and sewing and so we looked after their children and spent, yeah, days with them. And it was, it was, it was a great inspiring, heartwarming adventure and to see how hard working and all the things that they have to deal with and too many of them are single parents, are looking after siblings and they're they came to work with smiles on their face, happy for the opportunity, and hardworking and very, very cheerful.
So since the trip to Zambia, how has that colored your perception or your relationship with Sew Powerful?
Well, it certainly, well it's funny because even when I was traveling there to meet the group in Dubai, I was like, is this even real? Like, I didn't, I only met them through Facebook and I just wondered if it was even, even real. If it, was it a worthwhile charity, was the project really what it appeared to be?
And certainly when I got there, the project is more than what it appeared to be, that the, for my commitment to, to working with them, of course, it's very solidified in that you know that everything they do has a direct impact on those girls. And that Sew Powerful isn't focused just very narrowly on one thing, but on the well-being of that community. And that every, every effort that the volunteers around the world who sew, who donate, goes back, and I'm sure it's multiplied directly into that community, and really that whole area now. And I know for sure that lives of girls are impacted directly as a result of the work that Sew Powerful does.
A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a podcast and interviewed Jason Miles, the co-founder and CEO of Sew Powerful, and the title of that episode was Help Wanted. And he talked about traditional ways (I guess I'm using air quotes there) that people can help Sew Powerful. But he also said if you have a skill or a talent or a professional expertise, let us know about it so that, you know, Sew Powerful and those that we serve in Zambia can benefit from it. Since you've been back, I think Jason has relied on you in several different instances. Isn't that true? Besides being a purse maker?
I mean, yeah, I tried, I certainly would love to be able to give more of my time in this way. But yeah, like the latest thing was with regards to COVID-19. So we talked back and forth about some best practices, how are we handling it here? What kind of initiatives we've put into place to protect our employees, what kind of resources we've been using to help patients, for example, here, to help our employees stay safe and we work together on, yeah, some ideas like that. And I felt very proud to be able to contribute from knowledge that I had from other parts of my life and yeah, so I, I think I've helped a little bit in those ways.
Well, and here's an area that we don't often touch on, but people are busy and sometimes one of the ways that people can make a contribution is by choosing one of the categories and being a regular donor. Can you talk a little bit about that?
So obviously, this effort takes money and when you have, when you have a budget that you can count on because, because money's coming in regularly, it's certainly a lot easier to plan for bigger and more sustainable projects. But I know that any donation that's made to the program is valuable. I know for our family, we talk about what part of the program is speaking to us, in terms of where we're going to put a financial donation. So there's the farm, there was the soap making project. There was the COVID-19, recently, efforts or if it's going towards projects for materials for the purses. But I think, I think what's important is or, it can be important to keep a program like this growing and sustainable is a regular series of giving, I guess, so that you have sort of a regular income stream that you know, that you can count on. And then you can plan out your spending and more long term projects that affect the girls.
Well, thank you. So, if I can sum up the roles that you play for Sew Powerful: you're a donor, you're an advisor, and you're a purse maker, besides all the other things you have going on in your life. So I just want our listeners to know that you can be very busy and still be very involved with Sew Powerful. Christina, thank you so...
Yeah, thank you so very much for your time today. And we look forward to talking with you again soon.
My pleasure. Thanks very much for having me.
All righty. Bye bye.
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.