Extension Sewing Program Maintains Cultural Thread for East African Children

Contact: Kristy Ouellette, 353-5550

LEWISTON — Twelve-year-old Naima Arte is making a traditional East African black dress and Naima Odowa, 14, has cut and sewn a black and white scarf with embroidered red hearts.

Making clothes with traditional colors “is who we are,” says Odowa, who immigrated to the United States from Kenya with her family when she was 2. “My mom and dad like it. They want me to make more stuff. In some ways, it makes me feel closer to my culture.”

That emphasis on handmade clothing and household furnishings in East African and Somali cultures was the impetus for Sew Fabulous, an after-school 4-H club offered in Lewiston, Maine, by University of Maine Cooperative Extension. In its first year, more than 20 girls are participating.

Sew Fabulous teaches more than just sewing and knitting, says program creator Kristy Ouellette, an Extension educator in 4-H youth and family development in the Androscoggin-Sagadahoc counties. It also engenders mentoring, camaraderie and self-expression.

The program started in March 2009 with donated bolts of cloth, and $1,000 from the Wal-Mart Distribution Center Community Fund and $650 from the Auburn-Lewiston Rotary Breakfast Club to buy sewing machines. It is led by up to five community volunteers with sewing and knitting skills.

Ouellette and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Cassie Defillipo, who works with youth and adults at the Lewiston Housing Authority development, oversee the program. They also meet regularly with the girls to talk about life skills, aspirations and a future that includes college, according to Ouellette.