Young Arkansan brings hope to widows in Africa - KATV - Breaking News, Weather and Razorback Sports

Spirit of Arkansas in Africa - Part 1: Young Arkansan brings hope to widows in Africa

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NAIROBI, Kenya (KATV) - For those who visit Africa and witness the devastation and the unimaginable poverty there's a pause in time when the grit becomes vivid and life back home slips out of focus.

It's like looking through the eye of a needle. 

"Mine was that moment in the slums with Pastor George and he just said, 'We started a sewing project but it died because there was no market,'" Anna Taylor explained. "It just clicked. That this is my role. This is my life calling. This is what I'm going to dedicate the rest of my life to."

Nairobi, Kenya is home to more than 3 million people. Many of them are widows of war, AIDS and hunger. 

Damaris Awino is one of them. 

She and her two children live in a small one room apartment, about 10 feet by 10 feet.

Her whole life is about surviving.

Reports estimate more than 60,000 children live on the streets in Nairobi. Many are orphans, like the five children Judith Achieng welcomed into her home who are orphans of family members.

"Even if it selling vegetables, even if it is a matter of washing someone's clothes, they will do it for the sake of their children to get something to eat," Judith explained.

With jobs scarce, many women turn to prostitution to feed their children.

Judith was one of the lucky ones.

She said women can make about $1.50 a day selling produce; half of what it costs to feed her patchwork family.

The pumping of foot petals is the heartbeat of the sewing school Anna Taylor took under her wing at just 19 years old after meeting a local pastor and his wife who tried unsuccessfully to get the program off the ground in 2004. 

A college student at the University of Arkansas, Anna packed up and moved to Kenya with one mission: to empower women. 

"I want them to do something that fills them up with joy and makes them feel strong," Anna explained.

She raised private donations through her non-profit "James 1:27" to fund the free school.

Then more donations to provide groceries for the students unable to work while in training.

"I would come in here every day and I would see these women sewing and they were so happy," Anna said. "But then I realized they were starving. We don't normally think that as Americans. It just doesn't cross our minds."

The women use African fabrics and also material Anna brings from the United States, which is much less expensive than fabric purchased locally.

In July, 16 women graduated from the sewing school.

But there was another snag. 

In Nairobi, there are tailors on every corner hoping for work and finding none.  

After graduation, without opportunities in Kenya's stunted job market, the training was pointless. 

"If they do have work in Kenya they're not going to be making nearly as much money as they could if I was selling the clothes in the United States."

After interning with two African sewing companies, the clothing line Judith & James was born. 

Anna designs strategically, using a formula to create something marketable for the United States.

With friends and family there to help, Anna is thankful for the support.

One of her biggest supporters is the company's namesake, Judith, who says Anna is her best friend.

Anna agrees.

Cut from the same cloth, the two met in difficult times. 

"She was dirty and her clothes were torn and she would not lift her eyes off the ground. She wouldn't look at me and it's just because she was so down-trodden," Taylor said. "She had no hope, she didn't have a job, she didn't have money."

While the two worked side by side, Judith opened her heart and gave Anna a reason for everything.

"I'm not in this alone, you know, like she's my partner," Anna said. "It's been very lonely because girls my age, they're like getting married and living the college life and in college I was doing this. I was in my dorm room or in my apartment or in the sewing lab on Friday nights alone and I just know that I have to give my life to these women and every bit of my time and my emotions and like my money. I just feel like I'm giving myself giving your time and your money isn't enough, you have to give everything you have."

Giving everything took Anna's designs all the way to New York Fashion Week this fall.

"New York fashion week is most designers dream and their ultimate goal but my ultimate goal is just to see food on their tables, so for me I just see it as a means to an end."

For her, it's about the women making their mark on the world through each carefully placed each stitch.

Judith & James continues to grow, with pieces for sale in several Little Rock boutiques and orders from department stores.

Despite the success, Anna refuses to pocket the profits.

"I don't want to take a salary from Judith and James. Everyone says it's naive but I just have to see it grow and I want these women to be paid before I am," Anna said through tears.

Amid the oppression, there is hope for women in Nairobi thanks to a young woman from Arkansas mending one heart at a time.

"It's amazing that you can save lives just from a needle and thread."

 

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