May 1, 2018, Flint, Michigan – A fashion runway in Queens, New York, recently proved that creativity and hope can arise from disaster. Models in the Flint Fit fashion show wore rainwear and swimwear made by members of the sewing co-op at Flint’s St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center.
Sister Carol Weber, OP – co-founder of St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center with Sister Judy Blake, CSJ – said the sewing co-op was approached about two years ago by artist Mel Chin with the idea of sewing the garments. “He chose us because of our mission,” Sister Carol said. “That was pretty profound.”
Mel Chin and others from the New York fashion world met with Sister Carol and two others from N.E.W. Life Center to discuss the project. “He wanted to know how Flint felt about it,” she recalled. “He really listened.”
Since 2015, when Flint’s municipal water system was found to be poisoned with lead, residents have been using bottled water for their everyday needs, causing a new issue – an overabundance of plastic bottles. The fashion project was a response to the question of what to do with all those bottles.
The project began with members of the N.E.W. Life Center gathering more than 90,000 water bottles over a period of six weeks. The bottles were taken by truck to Unifi, a textile manufacturer in Greensboro, North Carolina, which turned the discarded plastic into fabric. A clothing line was designed by Michigan native Tracy Reese and constructed by workers in the N.E.W. Life Center sewing co-op.
Sister Carol said members of the N.E.W. Life Center sewing co-op became more involved in February, when the fabric made from the water bottles arrived at the center. The women worked from patterns to cut the material and sewed two copies of each item that was to be featured in the fashion show. “It was a work in progress,” Sister Carol said. “It was something our women had never done. They really paved the way.”
But the project did more than transform water bottles into fashion statements. It also transformed the lives of the 13 women in the co-op – and in a particular way, three women who attended the fashion show in New York. The project boosted the women’s confidence “by leaps and bounds,” Sister Carol said. “One of the women even said, ‘Now we know that we can do more than we have been asked to do.’ It’s a good thing for them to understand.”
The women flew to New York on Saturday, April 7, took part in the runway walk during the debut on Sunday, April 8, and returned home the next day.
“It was a stretch for [the women] in many ways,” Sister Carol said. “This was the first time they’d been in New York.” The women in New York were also affected by the responses of other people to their work. “People there asked them about their sewing,” Sister Carol said. “They became professionals to the people gathered there.”
The project did not add extra jobs to the sewing co-op, Sister Carol said. “If there are extra jobs, it depends on if somebody picks up on the design and runs with it, if somebody wants to create and sell the items.” Whether that happens, she added, the women gained a wonderful experience. “It stretched them immensely and they know that they can do more.”
And St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center will still follow up on the experience. The women who attended the fashion show have been asked to give a presentation about the trip – and a mini-fashion show will be staged in Flint.
In the meantime, the swimwear and rainwear is on exhibit through Sunday, August 12, 2018, as part of Mel Chin’s exhibit, “All Over the Place,” in the Watershed Gallery at the Queens Museum.
Feature photo: One of the garments made by the sewing co-op of St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center is featured in a special fashion show at Queens Museum. Photos by Philippe Rohdewald
December 5, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – More than 1,000 days after the beginning of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan – dubbed by some as the poorest city in the United States – Sister Carol Weber, OP, gave an update on the crisis and on the work of St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center on Flint’s North Side.
The presentation to Adrian Dominican Sisters and Associates took place December 4 in the Rose Room of the Dominican Life Center in Adrian. It was sponsored by the Congregation’s Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation.
“We go to the water faucet, turn it on, and brush our teeth and don’t think anything of it,” Sister Carol said. But the people in Flint are not so lucky. Recalling a visit to another nation where she needed to use bottled water to brush her teeth, Sister Carol said, “Now I live in a city in the United States of America where we [also] need to use bottled water.”
The crisis began when, as a cost-saving measure, government officials decided to use the Flint River as the source of the city’s water. The corrosive water damaged the lining of lead pipes, allowing lead and other materials into water used by Flint families. The pipes now are being replaced. “We hope that by the end of the season they’ll have 6,000 replaced,” Sister Carol said, adding that estimates are the project won’t be completed for another five to six years.
From the beginning of the crisis, the N.E.W. Life Center has been a support to the people of Flint. “When the news first broke, we got semi-loads of water,” Sister Carol said. “It came from all across the country.” The Center had to dedicate a room to store the water, she added. Now, the bottled water is formally distributed from four centers in Flint, but N.E.W. Life Center still gives out bottled water with the food it provides.
Even today, many people in Flint still rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and brushing their teeth. Sister Carol and two staff members of N.E.W. Life Center spoke of the daily difficulty that Flint residents face in carrying large, 24-bottle cases of water on the city bus and relying on that water for daily chores. “That’s been going on for three years,” Sister Carol noted.
“The water crisis affects the children the most,” Sister Carol said. N.E.W. Life Center added a program to teach parents and grandparents of young children about nutrition, and offered food that would help children to fight off the effects of the lead poisoning. “Once the lead gets into your system, it tries to go directly to your bones,” Sister Carol explained. “Food like green, leafy vegetables is the most important thing to eat to counteract that. We dedicate ourselves to providing this for the people we serve.”
With all the material needs that Flint residents face, Sister Carol said their greatest need is hope and trust. “To build the trust level back in our city will take a long time, but we believe we can build trust one person at a time.”
Sister Carol, Sister Judy Blake, CSJ, Co-Founder and Co-director of the N.E.W. Life Center, and the staff have been building up the trust in Flint since the Center was established in 2002.
Through the Center’s sewing social enterprise, women learn to become seamstresses and work in the Center’s own business, which originally manufactured medical scrubs and hospital gowns. Now, the enterprise is involved in other projects, such as making teddy bears for first responders to pass out to children, and producing filters for air conditioning and heating units.
The Center also has an employment-training program for the men. After a 16-week training program, the Center hires graduates temporarily to ensure that they have learned a good work ethic, and then helps them to find jobs. Many of the graduates endure a nearly hour-long commute to work in Brighton, Michigan, “but the men and women we have sent there are so grateful to have a job that they don’t mind the travel time,” Sister Carol said.
Other programs include a literacy center, which offers one-on-one tutoring and GED preparation; a food pantry; and a hot meal served three days a week, serving 3,000 people; Christmas gifts to about 580 children ages 10 and younger; and Christmas gifts of personal items to the people who participate in the feeding program.
Sister Carol noted that the Center has received monetary and volunteer support from the Congregation and from the greater community. She thanked the Sisters for their prayers and support. “I know that prayer carries us, and I know that where one of us [Adrian Dominican Sisters] is, we’re all there,” Sister Carol said. “So thank you for being there with me for Flint.”
Feature photo: Volunteers help with food and water for St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center’s food program.