Carrollton business spreads sewing

Published 9:51 pm Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Afghan women learn to sew on treadle sewing machines. It is hoped the machines and skills, provided with the help of charitable individuals and organizations in America, will promote self-sufficiency.

While the lives of war-torn Afghanistan’s women are far removed from those of their western counterparts, a Carrollton businesswoman and her supporters have discovered one common thread of the international sisterhood.

On Black Friday in 2010, Army Master Sgt. Clara Vargas, home on leave, walked into Lisa Steele’s Bella Fabrics looking to buy fabric and sewing supplies to take back to Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, Vargas had been detailed to accompany Italian soldiers on humanitarian work.

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“I was moved with what they were doing,” said Vargas, of Virginia Beach, who now serves in the Army National Guard after being honorably discharged. Her 25-year-old son just finished the Navy’s boot camp.

Lisa Steele of Bella Fabrics in Carrollton with boxes of fabric and sewing supplies that will be sent to women in Afghanistan. Steele has been involved in sending sewing supplies to Afghanistan since 2010.

“We had meetings with the women and they needed help. I felt I needed to help them because they had nothing.”

Steele said she realized Vargas was “spending her own money and taking her own leave away from her family” to get supplies to Afghanistan.

Going beyond Vargas’ request, she began a donation drive and reached out to industry contacts, many of whom responded with a combined $290,000 worth of monetary donations, fabric and other sewing supplies.

Daily life is a struggle for Afghan women widowed by the war, especially those with children. “Widowed women with children become untouchable (as prospective wives), so they are left to starve to death,” Steele said.

When word of Steele and Vargas’ efforts spread, more soldiers began sending requests for sewing supplies.

Many times the soldiers were collecting supplies for Afghans who had saved their lives.

“With Clara, one of the kids ran in and said they had to leave right away, and showed them a different way to leave the village without being attacked,” Steele said.

Other times, the soldiers wanted to help because they were so appalled with everyday conditions.

Steele, who has a 22-year-old son in the Air Force, said American troops can be trained to handle the heat, the danger and the 200-pound packs, “but when you send an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old into Afghanistan, you can’t prepare them for the … total devastation that they witness. It’s very hard for an American to walk away from that experience.”

After sending numerous packages to individual soldiers’ APO addresses, racking up an estimated $1,500 in postage, the project, now known as Clara’s Calling, shipped over 42 pallets in May.

The shipment, containing things like treadle-powered sewing machines, fabric, elastic and cotton, was sent out from an Ohio warehouse via the federal government’s Denton Program, which transports humanitarian aid in vacant space on military transport assets.

Donations are channeled through the nonprofit Lamia Afghan Foundation, making them tax-deductible, and distributed in Afghanistan by cultural support teams.

These teams, an Army initiative, are made up of female soldiers who often organize sewing workshops with Afghan women, who clothe themselves and their children, often selling surpluses in the village bazaar.

Last week, the Isle of Wight County Department of Economic Development named Steele 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year for the project. (In other awards, Aaron Hill is Teacher of the Year and Grace Keene won the inaugural Distinguished Community Service Award.)

The next shipment of supplies is being readied to go out over the summer, Steele said.

She will take the boxes accumulating in her store off Bridge Road to Ohio in a U-Haul, as she did last fall.

Clara’s Calling, supported by fabric stores across America and one in New Zealand, church groups, individuals and the sewing and fabric industry, hopes to teach sewing to more than 4,000 Afghan women.