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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Refugees and Immigrants Beautify Wyoming Recreation Center Childcare Room

By Cynthia Smith

Next time you’re at the Rec Center, peek into the childcare room for a look at the new nature-themed décor, set off by pillows made by refugees and immigrants building a new life in Cincinnati.
Amy Lautner of the childcare center was tasked with sprucing up the room with a limited budget. She put out a call on Facebook to see if anyone would be willing to help make the reading tent - under the trees she painted on the wall - warm and cozy. 

Creating oversized reading pillows was a perfect project for the sewing class at The Welcome Project, a Social Enterprise collaboration between Heartfelt Tidbits and the Wave Pool Art Gallery in Camp Washington. The Welcome Project helps immigrants and refugees build community while learning English, advancing and gaining skills. It also gives them a place to sell items they have made. Sewing class members are required to complete one give-back project per month and attend six consecutive weeks of classes to earn a sewing machine for their home. All supplies at Welcome are also available for students to take home for their own use. 

The group (usually about 10 people at any one time) has made beds for dog shelters, pillowcases for women’s shelters, gowns for the NICU at Children’s Hospital, tote bags for the homeless and food pantries, and aprons for summer programs. But this project was different, because this time they were going to make all the decisions and would get to see how their work was received. 

Roman Williams and Violet Matthews enjoyed the new pillows in the tent of the childcare room at the Rec Center.

An International Team

“Fabiola, one of the students who has participated with Heartfelt Tidbits and The Welcome Project for four years, took the project and ran with it,” said director Sheryl Rajbhandari. “Fabiola and her 11-year-old son Giovanni drew designs for eight pillows, then asked the sewing class bring the designs to life. 

“She sat down and discussed the project with the sewing class. They decided to repurpose pillows they had used for seating at War Gastronomy (a Contemporary Art Center project about food in times of crisis), determined the fabric, and chose to make slipcovers for the pillows that could be washed after heavy use by the children.” 

Sheryl was surprised and pleased with those decisions, and the team’s choice of heavy canvas from The Welcome Project’s pile of donated fabrics. “Then they decided to stitch the designs, instead of using iron-on patches, again for durability,” she noted. “These were concepts we had taught in class!” 

Once those decisions were made, the ladies picked colors. Four people completed the slipcovers in one month: Fabiola from Mexico, Narmaya from Bhutan, and Zoila and Lourdes from Guatemala. They used hand and machine quilting, embroidery, and applique to render the designs. 
Amy took pictures of the children using the pillows in the childcare room. “When I showed the ladies the pictures, they were so excited,” recalled Sheryl. 

Roman Williams, age two, read his favorite frog book, with the frog pillow the ladies designed especially for him.

They Want to Contribute

When asked why the sewing class requires the give-back project, Sheryl explained, “People don’t like handouts. They don’t want to just take. The last thing they want is to be taken care of. They want to be independent, living their lives.

“These new residents of Cincinnati feel better if they are contributing. The Heartfelt Tidbits mission is to help people become self-sufficient, and live like normal Americans, who volunteer their time. That is not always common in their home countries. Every one of our programs has a volunteer aspect.

“The Welcome Project helps them feel like part of something, not sitting on the sidelines. It was developed to prevent isolation among the younger and older women who are not working, and men who are disabled.” 

The program reduces isolation and helps the mental health of the refugees - and the volunteers. “Many of our volunteers are older, single people who live in relative isolation,” Sheryl shared. “If they don’t show up one day, the refugees are asking about them, call to see if they are okay. It is a close-knit community that benefits everyone.”

Baby Edward Grimm tested out the new pillows.

“I didn’t want to die where I didn’t belong.”

The Welcome Project brings people together and breaks down barriers - sometimes between people from the same country. “Refugees and immigrants come from all levels of society,” said Sheryl, “and a person from a higher strata is not always accepting of one from a lower tier. They connect over projects and see that they are not so different after all.”

Heartfelt Tidbits serves an average of 120 people a week. The English and citizenship classes are the most popular, Sheryl explained, because “refugees can become citizens after five years. If they are over 65, they have to become citizens to keep their benefits. An 80-year-old was the first refugee we assisted to get citizenship; when I asked him why he was willing to go through all the work at such an advanced age, he said, ‘I didn’t want to die where I didn’t belong.’ The average refugee has been stateless for 20 years. They want to belong somewhere.

“Many of our students are illiterate in their own language, so you can imagine how hard it is to learn to read and write English. We average 80 students per week across the two classes offered for English and citizenship.” 

Narmaya, left and Fabiloa, right, as they worked on the pillows for Wyoming Rec Center.

How to Get Involved

Sheryl encourages Wyoming Living readers to visit The Welcome Project in Camp Washington “to see what we are doing. Go to to learn more about volunteer opportunities. Donate money to buy someone a sewing machine.

“Items the students make are sold at The Welcome Project. Refugees and immigrants can teach classes: weaving, knitting, felting, anything they already know or have learned here. That helps them contribute to their families’ incomes. 

“They sell crafts at markets and pop-ups. They can also make things for their homes. If they want to start a business using the sewing machine they have earned, we provide training. When they first come to The Welcome Project, we sit down with each person and find out what they want to learn. Some of the sewing classes asked to learn artistic quilting; others a more traditional style.”
Volunteers from Heartfelt Tidbits drive students to the art and sewing classes, which meet three days a week, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Art is on Mondays; Tuesdays and Thursdays are sewing days. 

“The group is always looking for projects,” Sheryl concluded. “If you have something you would like made, such as a T-shirt quilt or custom embroidery work, consider using the talent at The Welcome Project. We also have an Etsy site, Go shopping for the holidays!”

A Fun New Place for Kids in Wyoming

We now have an inviting new childcare space at the Wyoming Recreation Center; come take advantage of it! Childcare is available Mondays through Thursdays from 8:45-11:45 a.m. and 5:00-8:00 p.m. for anyone using Rec Center. 

Newly expanded programming includes arts and crafts classes for preschoolers on Friday mornings, and canvas painting classes on Tuesday evenings for ages 8-15. For more information and to register for classes, call the Rec Center at 513.821.5200.

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