Julie Phippen, an Executive Administrative Assistant at Agawam Trust and Management Company (an affiliate providing estate and trust administration services for Woodstock), noticed a need while traveling in Zimbabwe and ended up establishing a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to meet that need. Sewpportive Friends began in 2016 with the mission of empowering women in Africa by providing healthy, handmade feminine care products and the education to enable women to produce their own. Just as a small pebble tossed into a pond sends out far-reaching ripples, Sewpportive Friends has expanded to touch more lives in the US and Africa.
Having grown up hearing her grandparents’ stories about their missionary work in Africa, Julie traveled to Zimbabwe for the first time in 2013, bringing school supplies to donate. While preparing for a third trip to Zimbabwe, Julie learned of high dropout rates among girls in rural communities due to a lack of feminine hygiene products. Some girls would fall behind due to missing several days of school each month because the disposable products US women take for granted were either unavailable or unaffordable. Instead of donating one-use, waste-creating products, Julie researched a different option. “I had sewn in middle school in home economics class, so I got to work,” Julie recalls. In three months, she and volunteers recruited via social media sewed over 100 kits for delivery to two communities in Zimbabwe. Each handmade kit includes washable, reusable pads, pad inserts and underwear. “In the first community we visited, one mother asked, ‘Can you teach us to make these?’ And that’s how the mission to provide both supplies and training began.”
“In 2016, I had no idea this effort would turn into a nonprofit group,” says Julie. The Sewpportive Friends community now involves more people, both in the US (volunteers) and in Africa, where schools, orphanages, and other nonprofits are connecting with and expanding on the original mission. “Friends of our nonprofit are sponsoring children’s school tuitions, and others started a program to provide bicycles to children who walk as far as 15 miles each way to school, every day.”
Julie sees the importance of educating any woman, not just schoolgirls, to make the kits, and looks forward to traveling to Zimbabwe, Uganda and Zambia when travel restrictions ease. She maintains near-daily communication with contacts in Africa—and receives frequent texts from children sending poems, drawings and photos. “The people we’ve met in villages say, ‘You’re not a visitor, you’re part of our family.’ That’s part of this emotional, life-changing experience. I feel blessed. I’ve learned nothing is ever too small when it comes to giving, and I’m proud that we’re making a difference.” Sewpportive Friends’ efforts are all-volunteer, with 100% of the administrative costs covered personally by Julie, so all donations go to the group’s mission.
To learn more about how to donate funds or supplies or become a volunteer, please visit www.SewpportiveFriends.org.