GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado - In Haiti, where families must pay to send their kids to school and students are required to wear uniforms, teaching Haitian women (and men) to sew seemed like a good idea to Jean Paradis. The Grand Junction resident and Avon homeowner has visited the island nation for more than a decade.
Paradis, professional counselor and mediator, and her husband, Tom, have traveled to Haiti each year since 1999 to help at an orphanage run by Father Rick Frechette of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (Our Little Brothers and Sisters).
In 2009, the Paradises founded the nonprofit Help Haiti to help buy food and medicine for the orphanage and create jobs for Haitians. Through Help Haiti, Paradis purchased four treadle sewing machines and collected donations of fabrics and sewing notions, and shipped the goods to Fond-des-Blancs, an impoverished village hit particularly hard by the 2010 earthquake.
Paradis and another Grand Junction woman, Kristi Smith, spent 10 days in November of last year teaching eight women to sew on a treadle (foot pedal) sewing machine.
"They came every morning at 8 a.m., and left at 5 (p.m.)," Smith said. "They did not stop for lunch.
"The moms' primary objective is to sew uniforms for their kids. They cannot go to school without a uniform. They also have to pay for school. Women are also interested in sewing their own clothes."
Unfortunately, the sewing machines - "Fingers," manufactured in China - proved to be inferior and now Paradis is in the process of purchasing a dozen Janome sewing machines, a brand recommended by Mennonite volunteers she met in Haiti. Paradis is searching for treadle bases to go with the new machines.
"There's no electricity, no water. They have to use treadles," Smith said.
Help Haiti purchased two 20-foot steel containers that will be filled with the sewing machines, fabrics and sewing notions - threads, scissors, etc. - and shipped from Miami to Haiti.
"We're looking for fabrics - no wool or winter fabrics - and we're looking for an engineer who could retrofit these new machines onto the old Singer stands with treadles," Paradis said.
Paradis and Smith so far have filled five 50-pound suitcases with fabric, elastic, threads and other supplies for the women in Fond-des-Blancs.
"We were like Santa Clauses," Smith said.
On their last trip, Smith, who is the main sewer, showed the women how to make patterns and simple "pillow case dresses" for girls that can be made in an hour. The women also learned to sew shorts for the boys.
"It was a lot of fun working with the women," Smith said. "They're so hungry to learn, and so grateful."
A table was set up outside to make room to cut out the fabric, while the sewing took place in a tiny room in a small school building, Smith said.
Haiti is a Caribbean nation of 10 million people, and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. After the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, more than 220,000 people were killed, 300,000 injured, and more than 1 million became homeless.
As often is the case in poor countries, necessity is the mother of invention. The metal shipping containers full of sewing supplies will not go to waste. An earlier shipping container was turned into a clinic. Another container houses a bakery.
Paradis travels to Haiti twice a year, including six weeks in the summer teaching English at the orphanage.