Featured photo: The women of RISE come from all over the world including Burma, Honduras, Mexico and South Korea. Nan Judy Winlin, Kumo Yuri and Jessica Htoo model bags they made in class. (courtesy photo)

The whir of sewing machines cushions melodic laughter and mumbled, feminine tones in a series of interconnected rooms at the back of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem every Wednesday morning.

White, wood cubbies reaching towards the ceiling above a long counter face the two dozen busy fingers. Each cube stores the brightly colored bits of an in-progress textile project. A neatly printed black-and-white label across the bottom of every square bears a name originating from somewhere far away: Burma, Honduras, Mexico, South Korea, Venezuela, France, China, Colombia, Afghanistan.

The women in these light-filled rooms are all non-native English speakers, here to grow their entrepreneurial capabilities through the YMCA’s Refugee & Immigrant Society of Entrepreneurs (RISE) program. The program grew largely out of the needs of Burmese immigrants who wanted to learn new textile skills.

Prior to the pandemic, the group sold many of its wares at craft fairs in the area. Participants worked with staff and volunteers to practice their English with customers, besides learning inventory and sales skills. As the world knits itself back together with in-person events, the program hopes to have these entrepreneurs behind the booth again, rather than selling only online or through custom orders.

Prior to the pandemic, the group sold many of its wares at craft fairs in the area. (courtesy photo)

Arts organizations were also forced to pivot during the pandemic, opening opportunities to think about community in a different way. During those discussions, staff at Piedmont Opera brought the idea of community partnerships to the opera board. That led to a themed collaboration alongside Cinderella last year — working with the Salvation Army to collect shoes for individuals in need. With its new production of Ragtime opening this weekend, Piedmont Opera sought out an organization which highlighted immigrant and refugee populations.

Piedmont Opera board member Jill Stricklin worked closely with Literacy Program Director Ellen Gallimore to find a way to meaningfully support RISE. “Most of our fabric and supplies are donated,” Gallimore says.

To facilitate appropriate donations, Gallimore and her team created an Amazon wishlist to promote through Ragtime.

The show centers on the intertwining lives of three diverse communities, represented by three New York City stories — a wealthy white couple from New Rochelle, a Black woman and the Harlem musician she loves, and an immigrant Jewish father and his young daughter in the Lower East Side. The Tony award-winning musical, based on the acclaimed novel by EL Doctorow, presents a powerful narrative of immigration and intersection, of extreme social and economic disparity.

The Triad itself is home to a rich and diverse immigrant community. According to the 2020 Census, more than 8 percent of the population of Forsyth County was born outside of the United States. It’s more than 10 percent in Guilford County.

Women like Kudu Julietaw, who came from Burma years ago and has been attending Wednesday meetings since early in the program, generally make their way into RISE through its parent literacy program at the YMCA.

Right now, the group enthusiastically works to fill a custom order of Easter crafts: fluffy, sewn baskets and stuffed carrots with smirking faces. In the past, participants created intricate Christmas ornaments, embroidered books, patterned market bags and more. Though the items stitched together are often whimsical, the entrepreneurial education gives these women a substantive way to develop transferable skills.

The entrepreneurial education at RISE gives these women a substantive way to develop transferable skills. Beh Meh and Nan Judy Winlin using a sander for dowels to make flags for donor gifts. (courtesy photo)

Beside an ironing board in the workroom are two tables spread with a variety of brand-new sewing supplies that have just arrived from Amazon: rulers, rotary cutters, packages of clips, notions, and two large empty boxes. In the room next door, the immigrant entrepreneurs of RISE whizz across fabric on a pair of newly donated sewing machines.

“After I came to the RISE program, I can now sew and crochet,” Kudu Julietaw says. “Now I have a part-time job, but if I still have time, I’ll come to class.”

Participants attend RISE according to their schedules, but free on-site childcare allows parents to join when they have small children in tow.

Seated in a sunny spot among the piles of material, Julietaw’s fingers expertly stitch wide button eyes onto the face of a carrot sewn out of bold calico fabric.

RISE is designed to teach skills, but also to give earnings directly back to members. For most projects, materials are donated, putting sales proceeds into the hands of women like Julietaw. In the five years since its inception, many participants have gone on to gain full-time employment; some have bought their own homes.

The program currently has 15 members, but its space at Wesley Memorial can accommodate more people, and that’s a definite goal for Gallimore as she continues to promote the program. “I cannot thank the opera enough,” Gallimore says. “It makes such a difference for us.”

Learn more about RISE at ymcanwnc.org/community/literacy/rise. Ragtime opens at Piedmont Opera on March 18 at the Stevens Center in Winston Salem.

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