MOUNT MORRIS — Catholic Charities of Livingston County’s Connections program started with quilts.
The idea was to help women make quilts and then sell their creations to help them sew their way off of public assistance.
In 2006, the program branched out even more. An eBay sales business component was added to teach computer and office skills. In April the program moved to a storefront at 65 Main St. so participants could sell their handiwork.
At the end of last year, volunteers and program participants gathered around a table at the back of the store to work and swap stories of heartache, abuse, loneliness and loveless relationships. One woman recalled being choked at the hands of her husband. Another said that if she were at home alone, she’d be adrift in depression.
But it was not a depressing group. The mood was upbeat as they tied strings and glued pompoms to make “boo-boo bunnies," the floppy-eared rabbits made of folded white washcloths that had been a hot seller during the group’s Christmas craft sale.
Connections started out as a Livingston County hybrid of two Monroe County programs: The Quilting Bee, a Compeer program that helps counsel and heal women in need through quilting, and the Healthy Sisters’ Soup and Bean Works, a Catholic Family Center program that allows women to work their way out of poverty by making soup and chili mixes.
Nurturing is a key program theme. Though many of the women are mothers and have nurtured their whole lives, few enter the program realizing that to be better caregivers they also have to take care of themselves, said Program Director Linda Richards.
Many of the women have survived abusive situations or have lived their lives as caregivers without earning a high-school or college diploma. When they try to enter the workforce, Richards said, they may find the task insurmountable.
That’s when the Department of Social Services, Catholic Charities and other human-service agencies refer them to Connections, she said.
Program participants first learn to make quilts and other crafts. The emphasis is on the quality, not quantity, of items, Richards said, which allows the women to take pride in their work.
After that, they graduate to selling items on the Internet. Once they have mastered that, they learn office and administrative skills, retail sales and customer service. The last few steps of the process — job search and placement — are aimed at getting them to find and hold down a job that can sustain them. Through it all, a support network of women who have already stitched together their lives teach skills to participants and support them in achieving their goals.
“We have mock interviews, and we help set them up in appropriate clothes,” Richards said. “A lot of them don’t have the money to buy clothes.”
Connections had been housed at Catholic Charities of Livingston County’s office in Mount Morris until the program moved to the storefront last April. Through a grant, the program was allowed to forgo rent for several months as it became established. Richards said that village officials hope the store will contribute to a downtown revitalization campaign.
Once all the paperwork and approvals are in place, Richards said the program hopes to open the store full time and make it a thriving venture.
Now that the program has a permanent home, Richards said participants have felt more comfortable coming in when they have spare time to hand appliqué quilts and make crafts, scarves, gloves, ornaments and pot holders, among other items. The women also developed a few unique items, including car-seat blankets, which are small, lightweight blankets designed to fit perfectly in a car seat to help keep it clean. In the future, the group hopes to sell painted furniture and handmade jewelry.
“The proceeds go directly back into the program,” Richards said.
Fridays are designated work days, when participants spend time chatting and creating items. Over the past several years, many of the women have become close friends.
“It is fantastic to see the camaraderie and the friendships that come out of it,” Richards said.
Since May, four women have graduated from the program into full-time jobs. One is working in a factory where she uses her sewing skills. The others are working in retail, fast-food and child-care industries.
The program also has produced some expert seamstresses, Richards noted.
“One of our very first participants turned into one of our best volunteers,” she said.
That volunteer, Terry Orcutt of Dansville, started participating in Connections in 2001 or 2002 when she was going through a rough time. Sewing wasn’t new to her; her grandmother had taught her how to sew on a child’s sewing machine when she was 7. Connections was able to make use of her talent, and now she makes many of the elaborate appliqué quilts that line the walls around the store’s back room.
“I’ve always wanted to have my own sewing shop, and if I can’t have my own shop, then I’m going to work in one,” Orcutt said. “It is very gratifying.”
One of the benefits of the program, she said, is that it gives women a positive outlook and a sense of accomplishment.
“This is like a support group for women,” Orcutt said. “It is teaching them social skills.”
Volunteer Betty Allen agreed that the room is full of positive energy.
“I thank God every day for a group like this where I can use my hands and my head and my heart,” Allen said.
Program participant Tammy Williams of Leicester said she has learned to appreciate the gifts of all the women at Connections.
“This has brought the creativity out for me,” Williams said. “I’m addicted to it, and I think the world of everybody here.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on Catholic Charities of Livingston County’s Connections program, call 585/658-4466. To view the program’s items for sale on eBay, visit www.ebay.com and look up the seller name CatholicCharitiesLC.
Connections program is in need of donations
Catholic Charities of Livingston County’s Connections program accepts donations. The program needs 100-percent cotton fabric, sewing notions, sewing machines in good working order and fiberfill for pillows. The eBay store also needs donated items, including boats; costume, antique or handcrafted jewelry; vintage or retro pottery; glass or kitchen wares; antiques; collectibles; Americana; handmade textiles; music or musical instruments; small appliances; vehicles; and art.