A Stitch in Time Saves Lives
Three new Kansas City organizations — Culinary Cornerstones, Weave Gotcha Covered and Rightfully Sewn — provide hands-on jobs training to give at-risk people a brighter future.
Culinary cornerstones student and Army Veteran Topher Head
Imagine classes where former drug or alcohol addicts, former prostitutes or ex-cons, or unemployed or underemployed people learn practical job skills — like cooking or sewing — to lift them from the cycle of poverty. No more will they be called disadvantaged or marginalized or downtrodden. The training will lead to jobs that offer a decent living wage and even prompt the students to become entrepreneurs. The hope is they eventually will pay it forward, volunteering what they’ve learned to help others.
Imagine no further. In Kansas City, these activities are already underway. They are examples of what is referred to as “social enterprise,” applying commercial strategies to improve people’s lives.
“Social enterprise is the idea that the traditional way of doing business and hiring people are leaving big groups of people out and are not fulfilling all the things we say we value in this society,” says Mandy Caruso-Yahne, director of community engagement at Episcopal Community Services in Kansas City. “Social enterprise tries to fill those voids, but still does it in a way that provides a service and makes a profit. It’s the bridge between for-profit and nonprofit.”
435 Magazine takes a look at three such ventures.
At Culinary Cornerstones, 415 W. 13th St. in Kansas City, a newly refurbished six-month vocational program of Episcopal Community Services, seven students are learning how to have professional careers in the food-service industry. They have typically been homeless and led traumatic lives involving PTSD or physical or substance abuse. Some are veterans or ex-offenders unable to hold down or get a job.
Culinary Cornerstones teaches them how to handle food safely, chop vegetables, make dressings and common sauces, order food, do inventory, keep books, and become a line cook or sous chef. Most importantly, they are learning, with the help of a licensed psychologist, the skills necessary to cope with the stressful challenges of the food industry.
“We’re not designed for everybody,” says Beau G. Heyen, president and CEO of ECS. “One, you have to have an interest in working in a hot kitchen with food. Some people think they want to be Top Chef, but they’re not ready. So we have to temper that down a little. And there is a reality to the physical and the educational requirement involved in being able to work in a kitchen. You have to be able to lift 25 to 50 pounds. You have to be able to do basic math and stand on your feet for eight to 12 hours without complaining too much.”
Experiencing both classroom and hands-on learning, the students support the planning, preparation and serving of catered meals through the church’s Kansas City Community Kitchen. This soup kitchen disguised as a restaurant, with waiter service and a menu, offers free high-quality fare to the homeless such as roasted lamb, oven-roasted chicken and tilapia.
The program also offers eight-week apprenticeships, where the students will actually work in real restaurants, such as Anton’s KC. The program stipends a third of their salary.
“We’re going to give them as much hands-on experience to really give them a skill and help them transition,” Heyen says. The goal is that the participating restaurants “fall in love with that student and then they roll them into a full-time employee.”
There is no cost to participate in Culinary Cornerstones, which aims to accommodate 15 students per class, with a new class starting every five weeks. Applicants, who are referred by social service agencies, are not turned away due to income guidelines or geographic restrictions.
Topher Head, a formerly homeless 54-year-old Army veteran with a history of alcohol abuse who hasn’t touched a drop in almost six years, wants to get his chef’s certification so he can find work near his VA-subsidized apartment on the Country Club Plaza. He has more than 25 years of experience in food service.
The classes have proven invaluable to Head, who has been inspired by the family atmosphere in the community kitchen, where students, volunteers, staff, the homeless, and businesspeople and others from the community dine together.
“When you’re out there eating, everybody is joining the conversation,” Head says. “Nobody’s looked down upon. We don’t know what that person is going through. It’s taught me a different level of respect. That’s probably the most important thing I’ve gained so far. I don’t care if you come in and your clothes are so tattered. It doesn’t matter. You’re still a human being. You still deserve respect.”
Caruso-Yahne, ECS community engagement director, agrees.
“We want the kitchen to be that place where we’re building community over food because we all have to eat,” she says. “Somebody’s got to cook it, somebody’s got to eat it…The table is the great equalizer.”
The Sewing Labs by Weave Gotcha Covered
Providing a way out of the cycle of poverty and hardship for women is the goal of The Sewing Labs, a new nonprofit program offered by the founders of Weave Gotcha Covered, Kansas City’s largest for-profit manufacturer of custom soft furnishings for the home.
The founders of the company, located at 803 E. 27th St., have for the past several years hired and trained marginalized women to work in their fabrication shop. But, realizing they can’t hire everyone, they wanted to do more.
So this June they will launch the first of several The Sewing Labs, providing free education and skill development to at-risk women that will lead to certification in certain fabric-related skill sets. Students in the sewing lab will work side-by-side with Weave Gotcha Covered seamstresses and designers, as well as volunteer seamstresses from the community, to gain valuable knowledge of sewing on both a personal and mass-production scale. In addition, sewing classes for the general public will be offered, and those fees will help offset the costs of the labs.
Many of the women who will participate in the sewing-lab classes are single mothers who have slipped through the cracks of traditional employment. They are perhaps handicapped or taking care of a handicapped child. They lack transportation and the skills necessary to earn a decent wage. Many have lived hard lives.
But in The Sewing Labs, they will learn how to become professional seamstresses with the idea that they may one day become entrepreneurs by selling clothes or artisan wares like totes, or open their own alterations shop, or have the skills needed to fulfill sewing-related contract orders.
“This has been the dream since we started in the business 10 years ago,” says co-founder Kelly Wilson, adding that donations of sewing machines, notions and fabric, as well as the time and talents of anyone who is willing to volunteer, are needed. “We’ve done business for 10 years and now we’re getting to do the icing, the fun stuff, the heart stuff.”
Angie Smith, 49, has worked for a year at Weave Gotcha Covered, is grateful a program like The Sewing Labs will offer at-risk women with the skills necessary to work in a trade. The former drug addict, who came to Weave Gotcha Covered through Amethyst Place, which offers transitional housing for women in recovery and their children, specializes in making Roman shades.
“I didn’t even know what a Roman shade was until I started working here,” she says. “It’s been amazing.”
Former Rightfully Sewn student Whitney Manney and founder and president Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer
Rightfully Sewn, a new Kansas City not-for-profit, would love to have the seamstresses trained by WGC’s sewing labs o “keep moving the needle,” says Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer, its founder and president.
But at its core, Rightfully Sewn will also provide its own seamstress training — initially, to four to six at at-risk women so they can work for hometown fashion designers and manufacturers. In teaching them a trade and assisting them with job placement, the program can help women move out of systemic, difficult situations.
“Our mission is dual,” Pfeifer says, who currently works as an executive assistant for the H&R Bloch Foundation but will resign once Rightfully Sewn demands it. “We want to develop opportunities for women, and we want to develop a cut-and-sew workforce that will support fashion designers and help get their wares to market.”
Pfeifer has assembled a credentialed panel from nonprofit organizations, such as Sheffield Place, to find the students and select the class curricula. The classes should be in place by late this year or early 2017.
Pfeifer, who has a background in art history and a master’s degree in museum studies, says, “We want to create the most effective program to have our graduates hired afterward. We want every single one of them to be hired in the community.”
Many local fashion, accessory or clothing manufacturers are eager to hire skilled seamstresses. These include Katy Bird of Sandlot Goods; Evans Cooper of Emergency Alterations; Lisa Choules of Elevé Dancewear; and fashion designer Whitney Manney, who was one of five designers to receive a full-ride scholarship from Rightfully Sewn to participate in the Kauffman FastTrac entrepreneurial-training and business development program.
“Sewing is one of those trades that is almost like a lost art,” Manney says. “The fact that I will be able to work with Rightfully Sewn and work with somebody who is interested in going down this path, helping them create a life for themselves as well as growing my business, that’s a double win.”
Kansas City once was the epicenter of clothing and manufacturing design after World War II in which 150 companies employed about 8,000 people.
“I like to call it the golden era of Kansas City because it was a massive industry,” Pfeifer says. “Can fashion again be a huge economic driver in Kansas City? Yes,” says Pfeifer, remarking that the cost of living is good and the entrepreneurial support is strong.
“I think Kansas City is such an exciting place to be. It’s a hot spot for millennials, attracting them here, keeping them here. Fashion designers are no different. We want to stop bleeding them to the East and the West coasts. In order to do that, Rightfully Sewn will provide a new sartorial system” that will include retailers, cut- and-sew seamstresses, designers, technical style designers, shippers and exporters.
In addition, Pfeifer says Kansas City is ripe with generous companies, services and people interested in social enterprise. “I can’t tell you the outpouring of support we have received, in volunteerism, resources, connecting people. It’s been extraordinary. I like to say it’s because we’re in Kansas City. It’s the right time. It’s the right place.” For further information, visit episcopalcommunity.org, weavegotchacovered.com and rightfullysewn.org.