Homeless single women and those with children have a safe and clean shelter from life’s storms at Akron’s Harvest Home at 24 N. Prospect St. It’s also where they can get the tools to rebuild their lives, and the wings to soar in a whole new direction.
Yvette McMillan — women’s division director of the Christian-based Haven of Rest Ministries, which operates Harvest Home — explained that it’s all about the women being motivated to be more and to do more by using two social enterprise programs: Lydia’s Purse and Future Story.
It’s daunting at first, McMillan allowed, but it’s also very confidence-building, insist the women who are taking part or who have graduated from the programs.
“Lydia’s Purse — done in collaboration with Maryann Wolhwend, owner of Maryann Designs, a global ministry — teaches the women to design and market large shop totes,” McMillan said.
“The program has four levels … By the time they get to Level 3 they are ready to make 12 shop totes for inventory. Once those totes are completed, each woman receives a brand new sewing machine and sewing supplies.”
Who wouldn’t want that?
“At that time they move on to Level 4, providing they want to, and receive advanced training in sewing and financial stewardship and are able to work as an independent contractor for Maryann Designs,” McMillan continued. “Maryann compensates them for each bag they make from repurposed fabrics and they are sold in fair-market stores in Akron, Kent and Hudson and at our Future Story Shop inside the Hartville MarketPlace.”
Among the many supporters of Lydia’s Purse is Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a national child-care provider, which has ordered hundreds of bags to sell on its employee Internet Mall and through its foundation, placing orders totaling nearly $20,000.
“This is an innovative way for women who may have barriers to regular employment to earn an income,” McMillan said. “It is also validating to the ladies, demonstrating to them that they have talent and can design and sew something that someone else will want to purchase.”
The nearby First United Methodist of Akron volunteered its facility and sewing machines twice a week for the Harvest Home clients.
Church volunteer Susan Smith, who has a home economics background, leads that effort: “It’s been nice to see their development and growth. It’s challenging, yes. But I’m getting as much out of this as they are.”
Three to five women at a time huddle together in a well-lit room at the church, cutting and ironing upholstery-weight fabric, operating sewing machines, trading ideas and supporting each other in this new venture.
Laurie Kelly, 54, landed at the Harvest Home three years ago, and started getting her life back on track: “I learned to sew back when I was in school but I had gotten away from it,” Kelly said. “But I got back into it here and got my confidence back. Now I’m ready to open my own online shop selling aprons.”
“I really enjoy putting colors together,” she continued, showing off one of her colorful, textured purse creations.
Kelly is already giving back: She’s been involved in a ministry that makes pillowcase dresses and bandana shorts for the poor in Africa. Sounds like a healthy soundtrack for her new life.
Kathy Sdono knows she’s been blessed by the Harvest Home and is intent on embracing everything it has to offer, especially Lydia’s Purse.
“My husband died in ’94. I raised a son by myself but I made some bad choices along the way,” Sdono said while taking a break from the sewing-room action. She also served as caregiver to several family members. “But after they died I had no place to stay,” she said. “So, at 54 I found myself homeless and scared to death!”
The mental picture Sdono had of homeless shelters was like Skid Row.
“I remember driving by [Haven of Rest/Harvest Home] over the years and thinking ‘I will never be without a car, a job or a place to stay’ … So, I was just devastated when all that happened to me! … But at the same time I was blessed that I had a place as nice and clean as the Harvest Home to go to because I didn’t want to live on the streets. I needed to take care of myself after taking care of others …
“What I found out is that the Harvest Home is a ministry that asks you to open your eyes and heart to God and rededicate your life. Turned out that’s exactly what I needed … I don’t mind telling you that I had the worst potty mouth. But He took those words right out of my mouth. That was April 26, 2011, when I walked through the door.”
The following month she got involved with Lydia’s Purse. “I made my first tote bag and got a lot of compliments,” Sdono said. “It was just a new way to express myself. I never knew I was creative! … With this program you keep the first bag and give the second to someone else.”
Now 56 and on the program’s fourth level, Sdono gets paid $5 for each tote: “Everything is falling into place! I just got an apartment [the men at Haven of Rest are charged with moving clients] and a few weeks ago one of the supervisors gave me her car! And I’m working as a manager of Future Story shop at Hartville, training to be a supervisor … I got my passion again … That’s what Harvest Home has been to me: a wonderful place to stop and breathe and get my life back!”
Future Story is Harvest Home’s second social enterprise program. “The ladies are taught basic business skills in customer relations, tracking inventory, pricing and displaying merchandise, making cold calls and more,” McMillan explained. “They receive on-the-job training by working in the Future Story shop. This job training program is yearlong and by completion they can use what they learn to enhance their resume, start a business out of their home or over the Internet, or test-market their micro business at Hartville … The items they make are sold in various stores in the area including the Craft Shoppe in Cuyahoga Falls. Soon their items also will be sold at a gift shop in the Akron-Canton Airport.”
Susan Wuscher, from neighboring First Congregational, has been a guiding light for the women interested in learning about business management, in conjunction with the church’s independent Living the Legacy community garden. That space yielded more than 600 pounds of vegetables last year for area food cupboards and serves as a business model.
The formerly homeless and highly motivated Jessica Wilson, 28, spent only a few months at the shelter. “I was determined to get my life together,” the single mother of one said. “I knew who the Lord was yet I didn’t know Him … I was given the opportunity to work at Living Legacy and I loved it.”
Wilson’s goal? To open a restaurant.
“Life is a journey,” she said, exhaling, as if distancing herself from an unfriendly past. “Now I’m finding love and peace in everything I’m doing. I’m even taking financial classes … I got my old job back and I’m working my way back up.”
Aimee Pryor, assistant to McMillan, said Harvest Home also provides transportation and child care to help its clients.
“Anything is possible at the Harvest Home because my life was one hot mess!” Wilson didn’t mind saying. “Not anymore … I was shown so much love and support here … I love this place — the good and the bad!”
Just like the discarded upholstery fabric used in Lydia’s Purses, these women are seeing their lives repurposed into new creations.
That is one powerful hallelujah moment.
For more information on the Harvest Home, please visit www.havenofrest.org.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org