Health center helps women mend troubles, build careers

Rosalind Bryant-Shipman sat at a sewing machine in the basement of the Hill Health Center on Dixwell Avenue, eyes on her hands as a length of colorful fabric slipped through her fingers, under her needle, and back out onto the table in front of her.

“I was on a limb, using drugs,” Bryant-Shipman said as she continued to thread the fabric through the machine. The fabric was rough-edged before it went under the needle — frayed at its borders and unevenly cut — but when it came out the other side it had a looped, finished edge, the rough bits automatically cut away.

“I knew that wasn’t my life, and I wanted to change my life,” Bryant-Shipman continued, finishing up one side of her project and snipping off the loose thread at the end. “I’ve been here now for three months.”

“Here,” for Bryant-Shipman, is Growing through Sewing, a service of the Village of Power program, which supports black women recovering from drug addiction, homelessness and mental illness. Village of Power and Growing through Sewing have become models of an alternative approach to recovery that mixes spirituality, friendship and small business skills with traditional methods of addiction treatment. Housed only a mile from Yale’s campus, the organization has recently attracted students’ attention: Last week, the Yale School of Management’s student-run Outreach program awarded Growing through Sewing one year of pro-bono business consulting. Village of Power leaders said they hope this donation will help transform Growing through Sewing from a basement treatment program into a legitimate design business that will revolutionize recovery treatment.

Growing through Sewing started three years ago when Vivian Fripp-Elbert, a retired designer and seamstress, met Susan Feldman, who had founded Village of Power only one year before. Feldman had been a clinical social worker for over 20 years and had started Village of Power because she was disillusioned with the available forms of treatment.

“I’ve been really concerned that the services for poor inner city people did not really meet their needs,” Feldman said. “My quest over the past 15 years has been to develop programs that really help people, not just that treat them like an illness.”

Feldman said she based her programs, in particular Village of Power, on the work of Victor Frankel, a concentration camp survivor who wrote that engaging in meaningful work was the key to surviving and recovering from trauma. Like Feldman, Fripp-Elbert said she realized that teaching homeless women marketable skills was the best way to lift their self-esteem and help them move forward with their lives.

“My favorite saying is, ‘After recovery, what?’” Fripp-Elbert said. “There’s nothing wrong with getting a job at McDonald’s or Wal-mart, but we should have higher goals. In coming out of recovery and learning how to sew, it gives you hope for doing something else.”

Feldman and Fripp-Elbert’s shared idea led naturally to the creation of Growing through Sewing, which now holds classes twice a day, five days a week. Classes are held in the mazelike Village of Power complex, where every wall is painted bright purple, a color Feldman said promotes a feminine atmosphere many clients find comforting.

The gender-specific atmosphere is even clearer in the sewing room, where racks of brightly-colored ponchos and scarves stand before a sign reading “Women of Change.” Around the room, women cut cloth, crochet and sew for projects ranging from three-piece shawl, poncho and scarf outfits to Christ-themed pillow covers and outfitted teddy bears. Fripp-Elbert, who acts as the head instructor for the class, said she encourages students to work together on their projects. Cooperation, Fripp-Elbert said, may be the true marketable skill students learn from Growing through Sewing.

“Everyone doesn’t always get along every day, and this is good because we want to teach them skills of how to work and get along,” she said. “Everyone doesn’t get along, but you’re not going to go out and take a drink or do drugs.”

Johnnie-Anne Henderson, who stood at the cutting table starting the pattern for an open-faced shawl, is one of the program’s success stories. A gravel-voiced woman with close-cropped hair and a faded “Lady J” tattoo curling around her neck, Henderson said she has been off drugs and in Growing through Sewing for two years. Recently, Henderson said, she was so inspired by her work in the program that she began the process of starting her own label. Now, the old moniker from her tattoo will be transplanted onto a line of “Lady J New Beginnings” dresses, skirts, pants and pocketbooks.

Last spring, Henderson made a prom dress for a neighbor’s daughter. Now, she is developing a reversible wedding dress that will allow a bride to change her ceremony whites into a low-backed pink party dress. In addition to her design projects, Henderson is now attending night school so she can eventually be a counselor.

“When we’re in here, the women, we have the courage to go for our goals,” she said.

Feldman and Fripp-Elbert said they have similar aspirations for the program as a whole. Growing through Sewing’s partnership with School of Management Outreach will aid the development of the small business that has already grown out of the recovery program, Feldman hopes. Currently, the Village of Power complex is open to visitors who want to purchase program-produced outfits, which Feldman said range in price from $30-$150. In addition, Growing through Sewing participants have taken on paid projects including making the table runners for a bat-mitzvah party and creating vestments for churches around New Haven. Sixty percent of all profits go directly back to the recovering women involved in the program, Feldman said.

In the end, Feldman said, Growing through Sewing could turn into a business that employs and is run by homeless women. In a working world that often does not trust people who have been homeless, drug addicted, or in jail, as have many Growing through Sewing participants, giving women an opportunity to work is invaluable, Feldman said.

“We will be able to create a job history for them,” she said.

In the meantime, Village of Power and Growing through Sewing will keep their doors open for new participants like Anchantress Dickens, who first showed up at the program five weeks ago, when she was nine months pregnant — “I was the biggest woman here,” she said. Now coming to the center with her month-old son Jordan, Dickens said she has just signed up to start sewing.

“I just talked to her about it. I’m gonna join it,” Dickens said, nodding her head at Fripp-Elbert, whom most participants call “Miss Vivian.”

When Dickens starts, “Miss Vivian” will teach her the first thing she teaches all women who start Growing through Sewing. Everyone wants to sew right away, Fripp-Elbert said, but the first thing everyone has to learn is to cut straight, because that is the most important, the foundational skill.

“The importance of cutting straight — like your walk, right?” Fripp-Elbert said. “In recovery, we teach them how to walk straight. If you can walk straight, you can walk by that drug dealer, you can say no to that desire you have today for that crack. It’s one day at a time.”

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