Enter the parish hall at The Anglican Parish of Box Hill, on a Friday morning and you are greeted by warm smiles, chatter and laughter. A vibrant quilt, reading ‘Welcome to Dream Stitches’ overlooks the hall. Patterns and designs are being drawn and cut, pin cushions and sewing utensils are scattered throughout the room and rolls of coloured material neatly line the walls. The women arrive up to half an hour before class officially starts – a testament to their love and enthusiasm for the group.
This is the home of Dream Stitches, a community-based sewing group for migrant and refugee women.
Dream Stitches was developed by the Anglican Church in 2004 to help Southern Sudanese refugees, who, after many years in refugee camps, arrived with little education and few job-related skills. The group teaches women to sew to supplement their income and has expanded from teaching only Sudanese women to now working with women from many different countries including Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Jenifer McKenzie OAM has been running the Dream Stitches group since it originated, with support from Anglicare Victoria, the Melbourne Anglican Foundation and dedicated volunteers. She spends up to two-and-a-half days per week organising the group, from communicating with volunteer sewing teachers and students, to sourcing fabric in preparation for each class.
“The group has come a long way since it started with 16 women who wanted to do it with only one or two machines. It’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s been so successful because we have such a good team of volunteers.”
Each student has worked hard to develop their skills. From learning how to read a pattern, to putting a seam together or sewing on the overlocker – every achievement is celebrated. Dream Stitches encourages independence and a sense of responsibility, whilst making an important contribution to the community.
“When you can make something, you’ve achieved. You’ve gained a skill. You’re doing something really tangible,” says Jenifer.
Each volunteer has extensive experience in the garment industry and include skilled dressmakers, professional tailors and pattern makers.
Rosalyn Sahhar volunteers at the class and sees the many benefits and rewards that the students experience.
“I used to teach sewing so it’s just continuing on… I’m giving my talent to someone else. The girls get so much joy. For me, I think it’s just seeing their achievements – from making a bag, to making clothes. That’s what I get out of it really, is just seeing them achieving,” she says.
Elizabeth has been attending Dream Stitches for the last year as a student and has made lifelong friends. The group has taught her to sew with confidence.
“When I came here it was very hard but in the months I have been here I have worked hard and can now sew by myself. I really enjoy it. Everyone is so friendly and teachers are helpful. Everyone is happy. It doesn’t matter where you are from – we are one.”
The guidance from Jenifer and the volunteers has provided the vital support and social outlet needed by the women as they enhance their sewing skills.
At the end of the day, Dream Stitches is more than just a sewing class. It’s the warm welcome needed when trying to navigate a brand new country and culture.
The Dream Stitches Program is one of the most successful Parish Partnership programs for the Diocese, The Anglican Parish of Box Hill and Anglicare Victoria. Now into its second decade, through its coordinating committee, the program is developing strategies for increased community engagement to enhance the life skills of both the women and their children. This year Camberwell Girls’ Grammar have been providing students to work with the children, and the Louise Multicultural Centre gives English classes following the sewing morning.