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Sewing Machine Project helps mend communities

The Times-Picayune

Sunday, June 06, 2010

This story begins with what Margaret Jankowski calls “a little idea.” She never imagined five years ago what it would eventually become.

“I didn’t have a clue,” she said. “I thought, ‘We’ll send a few sewing machines overseas, and we’ll be done.’”

Jankowski was working in a sewing machine store in Madison, Wis., in March of 2005 when she got her little idea. A woman came in, bought a new machine, and asked her if she knew anyone who might want her old one. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard that question.

She’d been thinking about the people who had suffered so much in the devastating tsunami in southeast Asia, wondering what she could possibly do to help them, and it came to her: She could send them refurbished sewing machines.

So she and her coworkers began gathering old machines and fixing them up. And with donations from their community, they shipped 25 machines to orphanages in Sri Lanka and India.

“It felt good because we knew children orphaned by the tsunami would learn a trade,” Jankowski said.

Then came Hurricane Katrina, just two weeks after she had attended a sewing machine conference in New Orleans.

“We stayed in the Sheraton on Canal Street,” she said. “I was blown away when I saw what happened.”

She felt compelled to do something. So she and her friends at Hans’ Sewing Center started collecting machines again, and in March of 2006, she drove 1,000 miles to New Orleans with her daughter, Maddie, to hand out 50 refurbished machines in the gutted sanctuary of Grace Episcopal Church.

When she heard the stories of the people who came to the church -- stories of lost tailoring businesses, Mardi Gras Indian suits, high school sewing projects and flooded community centers -- she knew she’d be coming back.

“This is my ninth trip since Katrina,” she said, when I caught up with her last weekend. In those nine trips she has brought more than 500 sewing machines to help mend our community.

I first wrote about Jankowski’s Sewing Machine Project in October of 2006, after she made her second trip down here.

I have to admit, when I heard she was bringing 75 sewing machines to New Orleans, I wasn’t sure she’d have 75 takers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

She had set up two distribution points that time: one at Grace Church on Canal Street and the other at the Mother-In-Law Lounge.

More than 300 people showed up at the church. They came from Slidell and Avondale, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and St. Bernard Parish, Lakeview and the Lower 9th Ward. And when she got to Ernie K-Doe’s famous bar, she saw a long line snaking its way down N. Claiborne Avenue.

As soon as she got to the door, Antoinette K-Doe opened it and said, “Get in here. All night long, these ladies have been talking in my mail slot.”

That time, she went home with a long list of people who still needed machines. And she kept driving back down to New Orleans and working her way down the list.

“They would sound surprised when I called,” she said. “They’d say, ‘You came back?’ And I’d tell them, ‘Well, I said I would.’”

People would ask her what documentation they should bring with them. A social security card? A photo I.D.? A picture of their old machine on top of a trash pile?

Jankowski would tell them, “Just be you. Just show up.”

When I went to her distributions at the church, I understood why she kept coming back. At one in 2008, a woman came to get two machines, one for herself and one for her mother-in-law. They wanted to teach at-risk teenagers in New Orleans how to sew.

“We take kids who have been thrown away and lift them up with love,” she said. “We feel like we need to give back for all our blessings.”

At another distribution, a woman asked me to point out “the sewing machine angel from Wisconsin.” She wanted to tell her thank you.

When I told Jankowski that someone had called her an angel, she laughed. But I think she feels like she has a sewing machine angel from Baton Rouge now.

Several months ago, she got an e-mail from John Douthat, who owns Allbrands.com, with his wife, Annette. The family business includes sewing machine and appliance stores in Baton Rouge, Metairie, Slidell, Lafayette and Lake Charles, and also a lively Internet business, thanks to their son.

“In 1996, when he was 12, our son came to me and said, “Why aren’t you on the Internet?” Douthat said. “I said, ‘What’s the Internet?’”

Their son, also named John, built them a web page. Fourteen years later, he is their information technology guy, and half their business is done from their website.

“I’m glad he stayed with us,” his dad said.

Douthat wrote to Jankowski after he heard about her project and asked simply, “What can I do to help?”

One of her problems was that people in the New Orleans area wanted to donate machines, but she had never been able to find a drop-off point, she told him. Douthat offered his five stores as collection sites and his warehouse as a place to store machines. He also agreed to pay shipping costs to move donated machines.

But shipping, storage and moving help were just the beginning.

“After the earthquake, John called me and said, ‘What are we going to do about Haiti?’” Jankowski said.

He asked her what her dream would be, and she said, “0ne hundred sewing machines for Haiti.”

He was happy to help.

“Sixty percent of the export earnings of Haiti were in sewn garments,” he said. “They need sewing machines to help rebuild their economy.”

And now 100 new Brother machines, donated by Allbrands.com, are on their way to Haiti on three pallets, along with fabric, extra needles and 65 children’s outfits made by a group of Wisconsin women.

“It’s a very sweet shipment,” Jankowski said. “The women sent letters, too, that say, ‘We care about you.’”

Douthat also contributed 15 new machines for the Adams Street Cultural Development Center at the corner of Adams and Hickory streets, where they’ll be used for sewing classes. He and Jankowski spent spent Memorial Day afternoon installing and testing them.

Now, the two of them are thinking there’s a way The Sewing Machine Project can help the fishing families so affected by the Gulf oil spill.

“People are going to have to refocus,” Douthat said. “I see it as an opportunity to get involved in the sewing trades. It’s all about retraining.”

Jankowski thinks about how far her little idea has brought her -- how many amazing people she’s met, how many stories she’s heard -- and she knows that somehow this is what she’s supposed to be doing.

“It’s such a simple thing,” she said. “You give me something, and I give it to someone who needs it. People are hungry for a concrete way to help.”

For more information, go to The Sewing Machine Project.