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By Cynthia Kaan | Photography by Jim Luning | June 2016

Finding purpose, one stitch at a time

Olivia sews for Stormy Kromer at N.E.W. Life Center

Olivia Young appears a bit reserved upon first introduction. Then she begins to talk about sewing, and her job at the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center, and there is an undeniable shift in her demeanor. She brightens and becomes full of energy. She is certain the N.E.W. Life Center was the breath of fresh air that changed her life. “It feels good to have a job to go to everyday … It just feels good to be able to have a check to do the things that are needed and be able to do the things that we want,” she explains. The “we” she speaks of includes her husband, Phillip. They are newlyweds who just celebrated their first anniversary in February.

Asking Olivia what her life was like before she became involved with the center causes her to lower her gaze and shake her head, “I don’t even want to think about it. It was depressing and just boring. I was just sitting around and watching TV. I was doing little odds and ends jobs like house cleaning and running errands for people. Little things like that just to make ends meet. But when I got up here, boy I just started being creative.”

Olivia is one of nearly 100 proud graduates of the Employment Prep Class that covers training in everything from computers and sewing, to work ethic and financial literacy. The N.E.W. Life Center website explains: “Our 16-week program includes 12 different skill components. A day would consist of an exercise class, computer class, lunch, skills class, GED preparation or sewing class, tutoring and proficiency testing. Participants are required to attend class one day a week and volunteer at the center one day a week.”

Not long after Olivia graduated from the program and began working, financial trouble had an impact on the center. “The sisters said the foundation had to be restructured, and that’s when Stormy Kromer came in.” Stormy Kromer is a company based in Ironwood, Mich. that produces 100% American-made outdoor gear. It is because of a contract with Stormy Kromer that the seamstresses at the center were laid off for only three months.

“We’re more of a professional group now, we have production to get out daily. It’s a challenge to see how much we can get out, you know, more and more each time. Before Stormy Kromer, I was sewing lab coats and scrub tops and uniforms. My favorite was the lab coats because of the collars and the pockets. Anything that is a little challenging, that’s what I enjoy doing.”

Olivia has a fellow churchgoer to thank for giving her the push toward the center that ultimately changed her life. “Just one day I came up here for a food box and I ran into one of my fellow church members. She told me about the program up here. She said, ‘Olivia, you’re not doing anything. Why don’t you come up here on Wednesdays and get into this women’s program’? I got a hold of Sister Carol and she did a little interview with me, and then I started the program and I’ve been here ever since. The program was wonderful. After I completed it, well, I wanted to work here. I happened to look in one of the sewing rooms one day and it just, all of the different fabrics and all of the machines ... It just got me excited and I said, I want to work here. This is my work and playground. I really enjoy coming to work – I love my job. I already knew how to sew a little, so that’s what got me started.”

Olivia fondly recalls learning to sew and how that gift became a passion she has enjoyed being able to utilize. “I learned in school in home economics and from my mother at home. I was always tall and it was hard to find clothes to fit me. Tall and thin, and so she would make my clothes for me until I started making them myself. I was in high school and she taught me a little bit of the basics. I just kept with it and did little odd jobs for people with hems and waist bands and zippers,” she says. Her mother’s love of sewing has passed to her, and a little bit of that love is sewn into every stitch.

Olivia lights up with joy when asked about other positive influences currently in her life. She launches right into an animated account of what Sisters Judy and Carol mean to her. “You have to see the sisters in action, because you can just see God’s love in them – the way they speak to people and the way they just seem to work problems out with such kindness. They do anything for you. Whatever you ask, whatever they can do, they are there for you. And I love them. I don’t know where I would be without them really. They have been such good friends and supporters of everybody through any crisis that comes along.”

Olivia feels a special connection with Sister Carol, who enjoys Olivia’s gentle nature. Sister Carol says: “She always had a smile, even when she was down. As I have grown to know Olivia even more to this day, I delight in her honesty and openness to new and challenging situations … One thing that she always says is, ‘I LOVE my job.’ She is not afraid to meet the challenge of a new sewing machine … When we went to Stormy Kromer for training, she was so animated as she learned each new machine.”

It is clear that Olivia has gained more than expanded sewing skills since completing the program and becoming an employee of the N.E.W. Life Center. She has also spoken in front of large groups at the request of the sisters – something she never thought she’d do – and credits the center for giving her the courage. “It has built my self-esteem. I feel confident at my work and I feel confident of telling people about this place. Everybody enjoys being here.”

Olivia has found what most people search their whole lives for – a way to fuse her passion with purpose. What was once, as she described, a depressing life situation has become a vibrant life of hope and excitement for the future. “Being here has definitely changed my life. I’m proud to have a job here and I intend on being here for a long time. It gives me courage and confidence to go and to just build more goals … We want to get a house of our own with a big yard because we have dogs and we want our dogs to be able to run around. You know, one step at a time. But, as long as we have a job, we have something to look forward to.”