Where Volunteers Make a Difference

Happenings at Kajsiab House

Yang Yang and Martha Sumi

In 2009, Martha Sumi thought she was just answering a call for fabric for a newly forming RSVP group at Kajsiab House, but when she met the Hmong women that made up the group she was hooked!  Although most of the women spoke only Hmong, Sumi was inspired by their desire to further their sewing skills, remembering her own start in home economics class in the 1970s and her own desire to ‘make something out of nothing.’ 

In Hmong, Kajsiab (Ga shee ah) means the relief of stress from worrying about the safety of loved ones.  Founded in 2000 as a Journey Mental Health Center program, Kajsiab House provided a place in which Hmong elders and their families can be safe, express and experience culture, increase their understanding and ability to live successfully in the American culture, and receive help for mental health issues resulting from their involvement in the US war in Laos and life in the refugee camps in the years following.

Although she had never taught a class to adults, Sumi began what she said has been “a learning experience to teach people a skill with whom you do not share a common language. I met fabulous people, staff and clients, who just really welcomed me,” she added.

With the help of staff translators, Chao Vang and Yang Yang, Sumi began teaching the women, most of whom had learned traditional hand-stitch and cross-stitch skills from their mothers or other female relatives.  The women were eager to learn machine sewing, which according to Sumi is a “brand new skill that gives them the ability to make a whole new product and sense of pride and recognition within their extended families to make something that is not (culturally) traditional.”

“Most of these women are making things for their grandchildren, who might want things made out of special fabrics like fairy fabrics for example, and now they can do that,” Sumi said.  “Whatever they’re making is for future generations. When you ask them why they make items for their grandchildren, the response is often ‘I want my grandchildren to remember me and the things I’ve made.’“

Until early 2015, Sumi has taught the classes primarily on her own, but when the Sewing Machine Project began teaching classes at Kajsiab House last year, their volunteers began visiting her class to say hello and check out what was going on. Those visits morphed into weekly help for Sumi and her students. On Thursdays, the group now looks forward to extra help from Trudy Brule and Annette Bollig, who make an extra trip to Kajsiab House to share their combined sewing experience. 

These visits expand the variety of sewing projects that members can bring to the group for help.  “I don’t have many skills with sewing clothing, but Trudy and Annette do,” Sumi said. Ironically, sharing their love for sewing isn’t the only thing these three teachers have in common, they also all share a common work history, having all retired from nursing.

This is a great example of perseverance, not only for the Hmong women who immigrated to a strange new land, but for volunteers like RSVP’s Martha, and Sewing Machine Project’s Trudy and Annette who see their common love of sewing as a bridge that spans two languages and cultures.