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Sewing it forward

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With a lack of industrial sewing labor in the US, especially in this region, Michael Kelly with Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services saw an opportunity for some of the region’s most vulnerable.

“If we can train (refugees) to (sew well), we can get them employed at any one of the local sewing manufacturers,” says Kelly, who repaired a fleet of old antique Singer sewing machines. 

The two main products Kelly and company make are hair scrunchies and pet collars, also in scrunchie style. 

“A little ridiculous, I know, but we think they’re super cute,” chuckles Kelly. 

Selling these products, in addition to donations, funds their mission forward, helping over 300 local refugees learn valuable skills, and have a place to live. “When we welcome new people in our community, it’s on us to help them thrive,” adds Kelly. 

RRRS bought the old Rochester Driving Park Hotel for one dollar. They saved it off the city’s demolition list and now, after repairs, it will house up to four refugee families.

That’s just one of a number of places that already houses 55 local refugee families. Djifa Kothor fled civil war in West Africa and went through this program 19 years ago. Kothor now works there full-time helping to settle refugees into housing. 

“(We) give them not just work, but freedom of taking care of their family,” says Kothor. 

Kelly says he believes in the dignity of work, and the more people can do work they find meaningful, the more we all benefit. “Refugees need work that is flexible, walkable and supportive.”

Those scrunchies are available for about 10 dollars at Gallery Salon, A Different Point of View, and other business around the city. The pet collars will soon be available on their website.

Kelly and RRRS will also have a gallery exhibit at RIT called “Good/No Good” from June 7 to the 30. First Friday reception is on June 7 from 6 to 9 PM. It is free and open to the public.

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