CINCINNATI — Ever since she flunked the sewing portion of her home economics class as a kid, Mona Bronson-Fuqua has wanted to learn to sew.
So when the Sarah Center at St. Francis Seraph Ministries in Over-the-Rhine launched a sewing program called #Stitched#, Bronson-Fuqua jumped at the chance to be among the first students.
“We know in this time of COVID and the time of the economy, as a person of a certain age, that if you are not prepared to pivot, you might find yourself without a job,” she said. “Anytime you can add to your skill set and make yourself a more valuable option for any employer, that’s a good thing.”
That’s also the whole point of #Stitched#.
Sarah Center director Lois Shegog created the program to teach marketable skills to people experiencing homelessness or who otherwise needed a way to support themselves. She has started with students like Bronson-Fuqua and her husband, a former freelance photographer for WCPO 9, that have steady jobs but want to learn.
No matter who the students are, Cincinnati-based AeroElite will hire as many people as the program can train, said Zach Kramer, the company’s managing director and co-owner.
AeroElite is a textile manufacturing facility that makes soft goods ranging from small bags to large engine covers and even nuclear blast curtains. The company used to refurbish the interiors of business jets but changed its focus to textile manufacturing at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Kramer said, and the change has paid off.
The company has about a dozen employees currently and needs between 20 and 30, he said.
“We actually have more work than we do have available labor,” Kramer said. “So right now we are in a hiring frenzy.”
Learning the basics, project by project
AeroElite has hired two people who learned sewing at the Sarah Center so far, although those employees did not specifically go through the #Stitched# program, Kramer said.
That’s partly because the #Stitched# classes haven’t been as big as Shegog originally expected.
She had planned to have classes of at least 10 students at a time, filled with moms from homeless shelters and people referred by other social service agencies.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has made it tricky to teach big groups all at once. And the women who had planned to take #Stitched# had to oversee their children’s virtual schooling instead.
So far, four students have completed #Stitched,# including Bronson-Fuqua, her husband and one of the friars at St. Francis Seraph Ministries. Shegog said another three people enrolled for the session that started earlier this month.
“It’s slow, but I think it’s really going to move forward quickly,” Shegog said. “And if they at least learn the basics of the more computerized machines, they can come in and at least know the lingo, threads, needles, cutting – all those kind of things that help them to understand the manufacturing process.”
Participants make five projects during the five-week course, creating each project twice. They pay $10 for the program to ensure they have some “skin in the game,” Shegog said, and Sarah Center provides all the fabric, zippers, thread and other materials they need.
“Each project builds the skill to the next project,” she said. “Following directions, knowing how to minimally read them – because this program is set up for people who might not have high school reading skills. Things like that.”
Bronson-Fuqua, who teaches Cooking for the Family classes for St. Seraph Ministries and has known Shegog for years, said she is thrilled with what she learned and has continued to sew at home.
Skilled sewers can earn $20 per hour and up
“I just am more willing to jump in there and say, oh, OK, let’s try this,” she said. “And when I don’t know what to do, I call Lois and say, yeah, I’m gonna need to come down and spend some time.”
She also has a better understanding of the work that goes into making garments that she sees in stores, she said, which helps her make better decisions about how to spend her money.
“Some things I’ll look at, and I’ll say, ‘I can do this, and I can do it cheaper.’ Other things I look at and say, ‘This requires this much work, and it’s work that I’m not willing to do,’” Bronson-Fuqua said. “What does my husband like to say? You pay for what you don’t know.”
Shegog said she is eager to train more people who can use their sewing skills to get good jobs.
Starting pay at AeroElite is around $14 an hour for unskilled or new sewers, Kramer said, and goes up to more than $20 per hour to start for skilled sewers, with benefits for full-time employees.
“I’ve been out to AeroElite now maybe four times,” Shegog said. “I was impressed with the cleanliness of the business, their ethic. Their machines are much larger, much more complex. But I don’t think my students are afraid of the machines.”
Kramer said he and his business partners also are impressed with Shegog and #Stitched#.
“We’re really excited to see what this program kind of delivers,” he said. “I can’t wait to see how well trained the employees are.”
Adding employees soon will be even more important.
AeroElite plans to launch a new apparel brand called Citizen Label, with a focus on making sweatpants, sweatshirts and t-shirts.
“With that, we expect to increase our sewing by three to five times,” Kramer said. “We’re really excited for this label, and we specifically want to hire men and women that really need the job the most in Cincinnati. That’s why we’re so happy and fortunate to partner with the Sarah Center. And that’s really what we want our label to be about.”
Information about AeroElite is available online, too.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.