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
Sister Carol Weber, OP, left, participates in a round table discussion with President Barack Obama and other community leaders in Flint. Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press
May 6, 2016, Flint, Michigan – After months of helping the people on the North Side of Flint to deal with the crisis of contaminated water, Sister Carol Weber, OP, came away from a May 4, 2016, round table meeting with President Barack Obama with renewed hope for the children she serves. She was one of a group of community members chosen to meet with the President during his visit to Flint.
Sister Carol and Sister Judy Blake, CSJ, co-founders and co-directors of St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center, have been working since 2000 with the people of Flint, serving the needs of the people through such programs as employment preparation, a sewing co-op that provides women with a livelihood, and a food pantry.
Since the water crisis has begun, the Center has also become a bottled water distribution center. The Center also now offers a support and nutrition program for pregnant women and the mothers of small children, helping them to prepare nutritious meals to offset the effects of the lead in their children’s systems.
During the meeting with President Obama, Sister Carol said, she shared the concerns of the parents and grandparents of Flint. “First of all, they feel guilty because they were using the contaminated water for two years – making formula with it, cooking with it,” she said. She noted President Obama’s empathy and his words of encouragement: “We can either choose to recognize [the crisis] for what it is or go into despair.”
“I found him extremely understanding, extremely intelligent, genuine, and very, very much in a listening mode,” Sister Carol recalled. He listened to the concerns of each of the community leaders represented at the table – from two college students and a pastor from a neighboring church to a leader from the Hispanic community; and a representative of the plumbers’ union who asked that local people be hired to fix the pipes.
Also attending the meeting was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who had tested the children of Flint, discovered the high levels of lead in their systems, and made the water crisis known publicly. Dr. Hanna-Attisha had pointed out that the children’s nutrition was already compromised by poverty; the lead in their systems added yet another disadvantage.
Still, Sister Carol found hope in President Obama’s assurance that the children of Flint will be okay. He gave the message that the children “are not going to be totally disabled and they are going to be okay – but we have to intercede” by making sure that the children eat healthy food, according to the recommendations. “I felt that this was the hope that we needed, but somebody in leadership had to say this clearly. I felt really that this was the beginning of change.”
She also spoke of the sense of support that she received from the meeting. “He talked about being behind us, being with us, but he said, ‘I can’t do it. You’re the people in the field who are really working.’ He was offering us not so much financial support but backing us in what we’re trying to do with our clients.”
Sister Carol was also impressed and moved by the many ways that President Obama demonstrated his desire to meet with and support the leaders at the table. He met them in Flint’s poorest neighborhood, in the poorest high school, bypassing the area in the high school library roped off by the Secret Service to greet each community leader with a handshake or hug; sending away the representatives of the press so he could meet privately with the leaders; and staying 15 minutes past the allotted time to continue the discussion.
She was especially moved by his parting words. “When he hugged me and thanked me for what I did in Flint, he said, ‘I want to thank your Order for all they do.’”