Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Sewing Center - Social Entrepreneurship, pt. 3

Our sewing center is located in the upper level of the Opportunity Center at 1515 Newhouse. It was the first business we moved to our target neighborhood of Hyde Park. We started sewing products at the suggestion of Chris at Picasso's Coffee House, one of our first supporters. He was selling messenger bags made from recycled burlap coffee sacs when his source left the area. We adjusted the design and started sewing them in our house in the suburbs. We could only do this because Suzette, Executive Director Terry Goodwin's wife, was already an excellent seamstress.

Sewing away!

When we began making bags, we were looking for businesses to start. But what would work in this setting? What would work with our existing skill sets? We knew we had to provide employment and supply our own income. Through starting businesses, we become less dependent on outside funding. We can support ourselves with the work of our hands. We didn't set out to be involved in social entrepreneurship. We didn't even set out to make bags (or have a wood shop, for that matter). We were looking for solutions to problems, and walking through opened doors of opportunity. Along the way, we encountered questions and answers we had never thought of. How do you empower people to minister? How do you create space that allows people to overcome obstacles? How do you use the work of your hands to build the Kingdom? How do you move someone from being surrounded by chaos to becoming a great employee?

In the beginning, we were sourcing bags from the local roasters in St. Louis and purchasing material at fabric stores. Eventually, we were connected with Charity Sharity, which gathers craft materials and disperses them to local charities and non-profit organizations. So now, all our fabric and other materials are free. This greatly decreases the overhead for producing the bags.

Burlap coffee bean bags waiting to be transformed

Initially, we did all the work of making bags ourselves. We had never managed a business like this before. We had never made bags like this before. Once, when we received a large order, Suzette had to teach all of us to sew, and we did from the time we got up until we went to bed. This season of the business helped us all better understand the product and labor involved, and certainly showed us how to work together. Eventually, we became better at managing production, and were able to employ a few people in the space.

We started by selling our bags at craft shows and Earth Day events. This gave us great opportunity to talk with people about our mission. Later, we took the bags to CoffeeFest, a national tradeshow for the coffee industry. We now have retailers in several states and Canada. Everywhere a bag goes, it tells a bit of the story of Sun Ministries.

Finished messenger bags waiting to be tagged and shipped

The Sewing Center has also experimented with other products, including paper, jewelry, and book covers. While we have established our regular items, we are still looking to future possibilities.

As mentioned in our previous blog, the sewing center space used to be the home of our missionaries before we bought the Leadership Center. When we moved in, there was no climate control, kitchen, or shower. There was no privacy. In the winter it got very cold. In the summer, it got very hot. Living in this environment, with close quarters and no escape, forced us to deal with relationship issues. We had to learn to work together and communicate. The thing that helped us is that we were all united in vision to accomplish the work. We knew what God had called us to, and that our work was doing more than producing bags. We were laying foundation for opportunity and hope. The Sewing Center has since been painted, insulated, and organized. A finished bathroom and office have been added. Extra lighting, air conditioners, and ceiling fans have been installed. We enclosed the top of the staircase to keep out noise from the woodshop. It is now a much more pleasant place to work.

Sewing Center today.  Notice, the work stations are set up so workers can see each other and converse.

One aspect that makes the Sewing Center special is that it allows participation from home. We've sent fabric and sewing machines home with ladies to make products. This is helpful for single mothers or other people with circumstances that would prevent them from coming in to work every day.

Through the sewing center and other endeavors, God is showing us that He has a purpose for our creativity and skill. In the Bible, God sent His spirit upon His people to be able to perform many crafts and creative works in order to build the tabernacle. We see God continue to do this. He has given us creativity and skill to work with Him to create products. We can express our selves and what He does through different materials, whether they be burlap, fabric, or wood. Utilizing repurposed materials not only lowers our overhead and helps us care for the earth, but it is a fitting metaphor for the hope God is bringing here. He is providing a second chance. He is coming alongside people to make them into something new, wonderful, useful, and whole.

Read Social Entrepreneurship, part 1 - Sun Cafe

Read Social Entrepreneurship, part 2 - Wood Shop

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