Purposeful Products: School Uniforms

More About Our Purposeful Products: School Uniforms

By Jason Miles

School Uniform program

In this post I’ll explain the importance and details of our original Purposeful Product – School Uniforms! This is the product that we focused on – as we started Sew Powerful and it’s still going strong today!

The Background:

As the Major Gift Fundraiser for World Vision for many years I had the blessing of leading lots of trips to Africa and to visit lots of communities and schools – but in March 2009 I visited a very special place.

That day – something inside me snapped. I guess you could say I fell in love with the place, the people, and the problems. There is no better way to describe it. I wasn’t heart-broken – I was the opposite of that – I was in love. I guess  you could call it an unstoppable passion. That day I adopted 475 kids (in my heart and mind).

The place we visited that day, the Needs Care School, is considered a “community school” meaning the government doesn’t run it or fund it. They are on their own. Although I worked for World Vision at the time, the Needs Care School location (Ngombe Compound, the worst slum in Lusaka) doesn’t fall within the service area of World Vision’s programming – so World Vision doesn’t fund the program except for occassional product donations such as Tom’s Shoes, socks, or maybe blankets, (which is what we happened to be handing out that day).

The Place People Run From:

I didn’t know it at the time but I later learned that most charities and missionaries avoid Ngombe out of fear, frustration, and futility. Believe it or not – we’ve even had career American missionaries living in Zambia (for decades) say to us, “we’ve only gone into Ngombe Compound one time and the roads are so bad we couldn’t figure out how to turn the car around to leave, but we pass it regularly because it’s on the way to a retreat center we like to go to.”

(I am not making that up).

After I stopped wanting to punch them in the face – I realized that (maybe) their calling in life is different than ours. But I still find it very hard to even think about that conversation without getting incredibly angry. Sure, Ngombe features open sewage pits, dirt roads, 120,000 people, (most of which are under 15 years of age), and incredibly high AIDS and TB rates. But Jesus is there. Right there.

At the time the school had 475 students and met in the local (unfinished) church building. The children were beautiful. The teachers were heroic. The conditions were (less than ideal) but okay.

Here are a few pictures from that trip:
School Uniform Initiative

School Uniform Program

School Uniform Program

School Uniform Program

The Importance Of School Uniforms In Zambia:

To understand the importance of school uniforms in Zambia you have to understand that it developed from a British System of education – and school uniforms play a big part in the school pride involved in where you attend. Each school has it’s colors and (for all government and private schools) the uniforms are required to attend school. The parents (or guardians) must buy them.

Children display those uniforms like a badge of honor. But community schools (for the poorer children) don’t require uniforms – they do it so it’s not a barrier to attendance. But not requiring uniforms is a half measure in our view, because although we can try to say, “children without school uniforms are great!” The reality is – uniforms matter to the parents, teachers, and kids. Uniforms remove an element of social stigma for the poorer kids -a lack of quality clothing.

Ever been teased for not having the right style of Nike shoes or Levi jeans?

The Problem Emerges:

Because of this simple requirement – most poor families cannot afford to send their children to government school. They simply do not have the money to pay for a uniform. This barrier alone creates the situation that enables many kids to not attend school.

Not requiring uniforms doesn’t really solve the situation. It only creates a “second class” syndrome in those schools and in the minds of the students, teachers, and parents. Who wants to go to a 2nd class school? No one. Not in America, or Britain, or Zambia. We are all the same.

The children needed uniforms – the parents couldn’t afford them!

The Moment I Fell In Love With The Problem:

I’ll never forget the moment I fell in love with the problem of the school uniforms. It was while I was standing in the middle of the school watching the children be taught. And I saw a message written on the wall (that sort of seems Biblical). Here’s a picture of that moment:

School Uniform Program

As I read the words “people need clothes” on the chalk board – God sort of said to me (in a very sarcastic tone, which is how he generally speaks to me) “people need clothes bro – duh.”

Moms Need Work & Want To Support The School:

Five minutes later we were on to our next stage of the little tour and our host Esther explained that the ladies of the community were trying to make jewelry to sell it locally to support the school. (We bought it all). But of course the problem was – making and selling jewelry wasn’t a very profitable business venture in the worst slum in Lusaka. Here’s a picture of that moment:

School Uniform Program

An (ingenius) solution emerges:

After we left that day I went home and told Cinnamon all about the school, Esther, the children, and their need for general support. The main support (which is still true today is for food for the children). We started supporting the Needs Care School personally with a small monthly gift. But the problem of the children needing school uniforms and the ladies needing work continued to agitate me.

More than a year goes by – and I’m still obsessing over this issue – and frequently emailing Esther asking how we can figure out a solution for the moms that want to work to support the school. But the truth is – Esther wasn’t focused on the uniforms, she was focused on food. I don’t blame her at all – that’s the most pressing need. The children frequently have just one meal a day – that Esther provides.

But over the course of time we agreed to try a pilot program together. Here is what we brainstormed together in collaboration with the jewelry making moms:

1. What if we could find a local trainer for sewing so some of the moms can begin to make uniforms for the children. Then we set up a small sewing program including the sewing machines. The ladies can make the uniforms and get paid for it (somehow, but we weren’t sure how because we didn’t have the money for that). Then Esther added on the 2nd brilliant step…

2. Instead of giving uniforms to the children as a hand-out – what if we create a small “financing option” where the parents pay for the uniforms in small payments over time – and in that way – they can participate at an affordable level – and ensure their is no barrier to getting their kids in school. Call it a lay-away program (with no interest rate or any tricks like that) just straight installments.

We launch the pilot program and amazingly it begins to work! The benefits?

1. The parents (and/or guardians) participate in the micro payments program to cover the cost of the uniforms.

2. The school is transformed from uniformless to uniformed. Trust me THIS IS A BIG DEAL! Most community schools don’t have uniforms. So the pride and prestige of the Needs Care School skyrockets. Attendance doubles. (and as of this writing attendance is now closer to 1,400 students).

2. The students are proud to wear their uniforms.

3. The sewing gives several of the moms ongoing jobs, a product to sell, customers to immediately work with, and the pride of knowing they are helping to make the school a better place for their children. We even eventually add a knitting machine (thanks to Shari at Thimbles & Acorns) so they can also make custom sweaters for the kids.

Here’s a picture of Lentia using the knitting Machine to make a sweater:

School Uniform Program

The Uniform Program Today:

Flash forward to 2015 and over 2,800 students have participated in this program. It is a cornerstone of our Sew Powerful program and solving this problem gave us the idea of “purposeful products.”

Here’s what it looks like today:

School Uniform Program

School Uniform Program

School Uniform Program

School Uniform Program

The Heroes Of Our Story:

By now I hope you realize that the real heroes of this story are 1) the Needs Care program staff 2) The Moms, dads, and guardians that made the decision to participate in the program, 3) The knitters and sewers, 4) The children. 5) the donors that have come along side us to make all this happen.

If you’d like to join us by giving to support the program – visit this page.

Cinnamon and I are proud to be the storytellers, givers, fund-raisers, and cheerleaders (and spiritual parents to the children we’ve adopted in our hearts). If you want to step up and join the ranks of the heroes – then consider giving in support of our program!

A Long Obedience In The Same Direction:

There’s an old book by Eugene Peterson entitled A Long Obedience In The Same Direction and it sums up our approach to combating extreme poverty through sewing and tailoring. This is not work for the short sighted, faint of heart, or easily distracted. It’s a marathon type situation. We certainly aren’t experts at any of this, but it’s exciting to look back and realize that we’ve helped make a small difference in the fight to combat extreme poverty. We are beginning to understand more and more that you combat extreme poverty by fostering school pride. We’re honored to be able to help make that happen in one school in Lusaka.

On behalf of the moms, teachers, and students at Ngombe –

Thanks for reading this entire story – and for your ongoing support for our work!

Jason & Cinnamon Miles