Sewing Program Creates Economic Benefits for Women in Belize

Mar 11, 2024 | Our Stories

It’s as if Chinese philosopher Loa Tzu had the sustainability of international Rotary projects in mind, back in the sixth century BC when he wrote:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

His concept perfectly describes the objective of Believe in Belize, a project of the Rotary Club of Edmonton Riverview, which has members travelling to the Central American to teach women living in poverty to sew to produce items they can sell.

Creating local economies is one of Rotary International’s seven areas of focus, which is explained as “carry(ing) out service projects that enhance economic and community development and create opportunities for decent and productive work for young and old. We also strengthen local entrepreneurs and community leaders, particularly women, in impoverished communities.”

In November 2023, a team led by Rotarian Lora Lee Peaslee visited Belize to work with sewing co-ops in Belize City and Sand Hill, a small community about 30 km north of the capital.

For Lora Lee, a financial controller, a Rotarian since 2010 and a former club president, this was her fourth trip to Belize since 2016.

On last November’s visit to Belize, Lora Lee was accompanied by Rotarian Lindsay Robinson (a retired public health nurse), two non-Rotarians (Donna Aab and Hannah Brandley), and Lora Lee’s brother, Blaine Wall from Winnipeg, who has been part of previous missions to Belize.

All these volunteers paid for their own travel and accommodation. All funds that came from the club, donations from individuals and from fundraising were used to purchase sewing machines, fabric and other expenses directly related to the project.

In addition to working with the women to improve their sewing skills, team members taught them how to make lined tote bags for sale. The bags have three outside pockets and a zippered one on the inside.

Lora Lee and Lindsay were able to sell some bags when they attended a Rotary meeting in Belize and brought 75 with them when they returned to Canada. Twenty-two were sold at markets before Christmas and the remaining bags will be available for purchase during the Rotary District 5370 Conference that will be held in May in Edmonton.

Some of the money from the sale of the bags will be used by the co-op to maintain the sewing machines, with the balance divided among its eight members.

A little extra income will improve their lives noticeably, the women said.

“Alma, a 70-year-old woman said that her savings were used up when her husband had cancer,” Lora Lee said. “Since he died, she has been earning money by cleaning a church and school and babysitting.”

She told Lora Lee that, “The money I earn from sewing is going to make a huge difference for me.”

“One woman said she will use her money to pay for her brother’s medication and another will pay her children’s school fees,” Lora Lee said. “A third said she was saving what she earned to pay for Christmas gifts.”

Lora Lee first heard about Sand Hill when she was with a team of Rotarians who went to Belize to conduct maintenance projects at a school in another small community.

“Sand Hill is a small community with few opportunities for women,” Lora Lee said. She was determined to return to share her passion for sewing with people in the village.

And return she did, in November 2019, after raising money for sewing machines and fabric, including $5,000 from the Rotary Club of Edmonton Riverview. Additional money was donated by family, friends and individual Rotarians. She also organized Shake It for Belize, an event that featured Latin American foods and salsa dance lessons.

With these funds, Lora Lee was able to purchase 16 new sewing machines from Central Sewing in Edmonton, who “gave us a great deal.”

The first group that went to Belize in 2019 included Lora Lee, Rotarian Cynthia Dusseault, Lora Lee’s brother Blaine and sister Norma. A second sister, Anna Grace, was to join the group but passed away just days before the team was scheduled to leave.

“I wanted to cancel the trip, but my family insisted that we should go,” Lora Lee said. “It’s what my sister would have wanted.”

In Belize, the women taught sewing to a group of 15 women, while Blaine built a cabinet for the machines and fabric.

“The women had differing levels of skills,” said Lora Lee. “Some had never sewed before, while others were pretty good.

“They are on their way to being successful. They want to be there,” she said. “These are people I am happy to give support to.”

One day during this most recent trip, the village council provided lunch for the team. “They told us how important the co-op was and what it can do for the women. They pledged to support it in any way they can,” Lora Lee said.

During the first trip to Sand Hill, there was a woman who came every day from Belize City.

“Every day she asked if we could do this in Belize City,” Lora Lee said. “I was unsure, but by the end of the week I said we would come back.”

She arranged for six of the sewing machines from Sand Hill to be stored in Belize City until a team consisting of Lora Lee, Cynthia and Blaine went to Belize City in November 2019.

“Originally, we planned to rent a room in a building in Belize City for the classes, but in the end we weren’t able to get the rental, so we arranged for classes to be held in a community centre,” said Lora Lee.

The women in the group ranged in age from a teenager to a grandmother. One participant was a single mother with four kids who accompanied her every day. Most were new to sewing.

“These women were pretty determined,” Lora Lee said. “They worked hard and learned quickly.”

During the two weeks the team was in Belize City in 2019, Blaine built a 20 x 24-foot building to be used by the women who had determined they would establish a sewing co-op. He worked with community members to improve the wiring and install drywall during this most recent visit.

Representatives of the sewing co-operatives in Belize will be sponsored to attend the district conference in May.

Members of sewing co-op in Belize City show samples of bags they produced.

Rotarian Lora Lee Peaslee in Sand Hill.

Rotarian Lindsay Robinson with members of the sewing co-op in Sand Hill.

Member of the Belize City sewing co-op.