I sometimes fantasize about being retired. Since I’m knee-deep in raising little people right now, the reality of getting up and doing what I want to do, versus what needs to be done, is a long way off. But when that day does arrive, I know just who I want to be like—Hildegard Ayer.
In her retirement, she is influencing as many lives – perhaps some even more profoundly – than all those she touched during the years she spent as a social worker. And she’s doing it with scraps of fabric and donated yarn.
Ayer heads up a group of retired professional women running the non-profit, Artisans 4 Hope. The organization builds upon the native skills of female refugees. They teach them to sew, to knit and to create items that can be marketed and sold at local markets, events, bazaars and in stores.
“Here we thought we’d have textile artistry in the blink of an eye,” remembers Ayers. “We did not realize what the refugees were really like, that they had spent 10 to 20 years in refugee camps. That they had been too busy trying to survive to get an education.”
That was in 2008. The idea that started with a comment at a book club grew with these driven women going out and getting space donated, fabrics contributed and grants awarded. And along the way, they found themselves teaching more than sewing skills. “When these women come to our classes, they are in deep pain, they are expressionless. By about the third meeting, we start to see them holding their heads erect, smiling, laughing, communicating and learning to trust. That’s a big thing”, said Ayer.
It’s not uncommon to have refugees from five different countries, speaking five different languages. So the volunteers help the refugees learn English as they create “works of art” such as scarves, coasters, wine bags, fabric totes and laptop cases.
Ayer said the refugees have just completed their sixth class and they’ve helped over 60 women develop skills and make some money to help with their survival. The quality is improving and the proceeds are growing. In 2009, the refugees, who keep every penny, made $9,000. So far, this year, they’ve counted over $19,000 in sales.
But perhaps the biggest sign of success can be measured in the leadership of the constantly evolving organization. Artisans 4 Hope now pays several refugees to work as teachers and skills coaches. The group also boasts a refugee as one of its board members.
I’d say these women have found a pretty worthwhile way to wile away their retirement.
Lonni Leavitt-Barker is a freelance writer in Eagle. She is a former television reporter and producer. She can be contacted at Lonleavittbarker@gmail.com.