From my initial days at Human and Hope Association, I had always planned to get a sewing program up and running. I knew that English classes weren’t for everyone, and for those villagers who were over eighteen and hadn’t finished school, sewing was the perfect skill. The great thing about sewing was that it was a skill that both men and women in Cambodia worked in. When driving through town, you would often see tailor shops with males sewing front and centre. There were no gender conformities with sewing.
To get funding to set up the program, I organised a fundraiser for my 27th birthday in January 2013. Sending out an email with the sewing program proposal to my family and friends, I pleaded with them to make a donation to my personal PayPal account, so I could purchase the initial materials required to set up the program. To begin with, we required five sewing machines, a cupboard, material and the bits and bobs that were involved in sewing.
Once again, the generosity of those I cherished astounded me, and I secured the funds to set up the program. Before we were going to purchase anything, however, we needed to hire teaching staff who could then create the curriculum. I sought help from my friend, Sreylin, who had previously worked as a sewing assistant at another NGO, and she brought a candidate to us. The idea was that we had two part-time teachers; one who taught in the morning, and one who taught in the afternoon.
The Director and my colleague interviewed the candidate with a list of questions I had provided them with, and after celebrating the first interviews they had ever given, they decided we should hire her as our afternoon sewing teacher. She was working at two NGO’s as a sewing teacher, and in order to work for us, she would need to resign from her afternoon job.
Over the next few weeks, our team worked together to purchase the supplies we needed and work on a recruitment approach. We also hired our morning sewing teacher, Seyla, who came on a recommendation from Sreylin and the new sewing teacher.
After consulting with a friend who ran outreach programs, I decided we should provide the students with a stipend of $15USD a month for studying. This would encourage them to come and help them meet their basic commitments whilst they took the time out to study. Feeling more confident after their recruitment of students for the sewing program, S and C headed out to our surrounding villages, and equipped with a survey to determine their level of poor, recruited students for the program. We ended up with five morning students and five afternoon students who were all eager to study in the four-month program.
The day we came back from our Khmer New Year break in April 2013 was the day we launched the program. We held our breath until we saw that all the students had turned up, giving us hope for the success of the program. The students began by learning how to stitch on newspaper for the first few days, then eager to learn more, they made embroidered backpacks. The four-month program saw them making school uniforms for primary school students, in addition to tailored shirts for adults.
The first student to drop off was our only male student. He was a polite young man who had picked up on sewing very quickly. The problem was, as most of our students faced, was that his family wanted him to be earning money straight away. His family took out a loan and bought the student a tuk-tuk, and told him he had to work immediately, so he left. After that, two other students dropped off with similar reasons. We were left with seven students who were still eager to finish the program.
Nearing the end of the program, we offered the students the opportunity to take out a microfinance loan to purchase a small sewing machine at a cost of $95USD. Surprisingly, only two students took us up on the offer. After assessing their personal situation and the ability to earn an income from the machines, we agreed to provide them with the machines which we purchased ourselves at the same shop where we had bought the machines for our classroom.
One of the students who took out a loan was Phalla. At the completion of the program, we hired Phalla to be the part-time sewing assistant to Seyla, earning $40USD a month. At just 18 years old, Phalla had been through a lot. She had stopped studying in grade seven after the death of her younger sister. Her mother had contracted a serious illness not long after, and with her older sister needing to take care of her mother, their income drastically decreased. Phalla could no longer afford to study, so instead, she went to work at a restaurant full-time for $50USD a month. When we approach Phalla to study in the sewing program, she jumped at the opportunity. Her commitment to sewing and her determined attitude was what made Seyla decide to choose her as his assistant. Phalla worked half the day, began studying English at Human and Hope Association for an hour a day, and then made clothes for her neighbours in her spare time. Years later, she is still working at Human and Hope Association and has three sewing machines to her name.
The other student who took out a loan fell pregnant not soon after, and due to a complicated pregnancy, she gave up sewing. Although her machine went unused, she paid Human and Hope Association back the full amount and went on to sell the machine. Out of all of the semesters of sewing at Human and Hope Association, I believe the first was our least successful, though I learnt a lot from it so we could turn it into the thriving, life-changing program it is today.