It’s women like Anna who motivate Lora Lee Peaslee (RC of Edmonton Riverview) to return to Belize to teach impoverished women to sew.
“These women have no means of earning income,” Lora Lee says. “If they had sewing machines and learned sewing skills, they could generate some income.”
In November, Lora Lee returned to Belize for the third time, which is when she met Anna, a 31-year-old single mother of four.
Lora Lee’s first visit to Belize was part of a club project in 2016 to refurbish a school in Gales Point, a small community located about 30 kilometres from Belize City.
“We had received a donation of 15 used sewing machines and someone asked if I was interested in teaching women how to sew,” she says.
The first day, 12 women showed up for the class; the next day, 20. By the end of the week, there were 30.
Working with used machines proved frustrating. They stopped working and needed to be repaired. “By taking parts from other machines, we were able to get 10 machines that we could use,” Lora Lee says. “We decided it would be better if we had new machines.”
Beginning with $5,000 from the club’s casino fund, Lora Lee was able to raise $14,000 for her next visit to Belize, through a crowdfunding campaign, a fundraising event (“Shake it for Belize”) and donations from individual Rotarians and family members.
This money was used to purchase 16 new sewing machines and fabric before she, another Rotarian and two members of Lora Lee’s family left in April 2019 for a second project, this time in Sandhill.
About 20 women attended those classes, including a woman who came from Belize City, about 85 km away.
“Every day, Marielee asked if I could come to Belize City,” Lora Lee says. “I said yes, but I didn’t know when.”
This third project was possible sooner than expected, because the Sandhill project had only used $8,000 of the $14,000 that had been raised.
“OK, I decided I could do another project,” Lora Lee says.
She had left 10 sewing machines in Sandhill and the other six with Marielee, who was responsible for organizing a co-operative in Belize City and finding a space for the classes which could also be used later by the co-operative.
“She arranged for a rental property that the co-operative could use for two years, if we completed needed repairs,” Lora Lee says. “But that deal fell through, which I didn’t know until I arrived in Belize.”
Luckily, Marielee was able to arrange the use of a sports centre for the sewing classes, where the machines could be locked away at night, but that only provided space for the sewing classes and didn’t contribute to the project becoming a sustainable venture for the co-op.
“There was no use teaching them to sew if they didn’t have a place to sew afterwards,” Lora Lee says.
Fortunately, in anticipation of needing to conduct repairs at the original location, Lora Lee had asked her brother from Winnipeg to pack up his tools and join her in Belize.
“He decided to build a new building,” she says. “He priced out what this would cost, and he found the cost was similar to what was budgeted for the repairs.”
With the assistance of helpers that Marielee recruited, he was able to erect an 18 x 24- foot building, with a concrete floor, within a week.
“They started Friday, and we were able to move in by Thursday,” Lora Lee says. “It’s just a shell, but that used up all the money we had. It still needs to be finished inside and needs to be wired. They are using extension cords for the sewing machines.”
Eleven women, ranging in age from a 17-year-old to seniors, attended the class that Lora Lee and a former member of the club taught.
“One woman was working three jobs to support her family, but she still came to class every day,” Lora Lee says. “She was there because she wanted to learn.”
But the woman whose story most moved Lora Lee was Anna.
“She is an amazing woman, who has faced for many obstacles,” Lora Lee says. “If she had a chance, she would go far.”
When Anna was 13, her mother sold everything in the house and moved to the United States with her other daughter, leaving Anna alone in the house.
She was forced to beg for food. An aunt, who was supposed to keep an eye on Anna, only stopped by occasionally.
A year later, the mother and Anna’s new stepfather returned to Belize.
“The stepfather raped Anna repeatedly,” Lora Lee says. “When she told her mother, she didn’t believe her, so Anna ran away to live with a grandmother.”
When the grandmother died a few years later, Anna was back on the streets. At 19, she had her first child.
“After her first child was born, Anna wanted her tubes tied, but the doctor refused,” Lora Lee says. Since then, she and her partner have had three more children.
Anna now lives with her children in a shack, with a roof that leaks and a door that can’t be locked.
“She doesn’t sleep well, because she is so worried about the safety of her children because the shack is not secure,” Lora Lee says.
Occasionally, she finds work in the hospitality industry to earn money to buy groceries and pay her children’s school fees, but she is only able to work occasionally because she lacks child care.
When she heard about the Rotary sewing project, Anna was determined to participate.
“She was there every day, even though she had to walk five km each day to attend class,” Lora Lee says. “One day, she brought her three-year-old son with her, who also walked the five km.”
When Lora Lee gave her money to take the bus, Anna gave the money to her children so they could take the bus to school and she still walked to class.
Anna proved to be a quick learner. “In the time it took others to complete one item, Anna made two,” Lora Lee says. “She was also able to help others when they encountered problems with their sewing machines.”
During their introductory sewing classes, the women learned to make drawstring bags, shopping bags with handles, curtains, skirts and sundresses.
Recently, they set up a table on a street near a bank to sell what they had made. Once they have enough inventory, they will rent a booth near where cruise ships dock, where they hope to sell to tourists visiting Belize City.
“The co-op will use some of the money to purchase material and distribute the profits to members, based on how much time they spent sewing the merchandise,” Lora Lee says. “You need to participate to share in the profits.”
When the Rotary team’s visit was nearing an end, the Belizean women asked, “When are you coming back?”
It’s something that Lora Lee hopes to do. “It would be nice to go back to take them to the next level,” she says.
Eventually members of the co-op hope to be able to sew school uniforms and scrubs for staff in local medical facilities.
“I hope that other Rotarians who know how to sew will join us the next time we go to Belize,” Lora Lee says.
If you are interested in visiting Belize to teach sewing or with to donate to the project (fabric, sewing supplies, etc.), email Lora Lee at email@example.com.
The Rotary Club of Edmonton Riverview meets Tuesday mornings at 7:15 at the Chateau Nova Hotel, 159 Airport Road NW.