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St. Louis organization employs and empowers immigrant and refugee women

It gives them new skills and a living-wage job, as they weave their own lives into the United States.

ST. LOUIS — One St. Louis agency is making an impact by employing and empowering immigrants and refugee women.

The hybrid nonprofit with a small batch business manufacturing facility is called The Collective Thread and it's in the historic Garment District on Washington Avenue.

"There are very few organizations like ours," said Terri Stipanovich, CEO and founder. "I have five daughters and I’ve always had a heart for women’s issues. I really had a burning desire to do something."

Credit: KSDK

Stipanovich was always involved in volunteering and even worked with one organization that put in efforts to stop sex trafficking.

She then went oversees to Africa for three weeks.

"It changed my life. I saw these young girls in the red light district and was talking to them. I kept seeing my daughters in these girls," Stipanovich said. "My daughters grew up in the U.S. and had every benefit. It felt unjust to me and I knew when I saw this and needed to help."

The journey started with a sewing program in East Africa and eventually, it started in St. Louis. 

The goal was to help women facing multiple adversities.

Stipanovich was able to build a learning and growing space for a well-knit group.

"We have a sewing school, that’s the nonprofit, and we have free classes. We also have on-the-job training," she said. "We had refugees and immigrants come through those classes and we teach women the skill of sewing and design."

From there, those that qualify can be employed with its factory or product development team.

Stipanovich aims to empower other women, specifically refugees and immigrants. 

About 75% of their sewers are refugees.

It gives them new skills and a living-wage job, as they weave their own lives into the United States.

"I know our women, some of them, come from horrific circumstances," Stipanovich said.

Currently, the efforts are needed more than ever.

"We have two women who are Afghan refugees and we are helping them right now they are going through a difficult time," Stipanovich said.

She explained that these women's husbands came with special immigrant visas and worked with the U.S. government. That's why, she shares, they were targeted by the Taliban.

Their lives were in danger and they fled here about five years ago. 

"What we’re really seeing now is that their families are at risk," Stipanovich said. "We are doing all the legal work to get their visas submitted and paid for and find sponsors for family members. We are helping them to apply for humanitarian parole visas for family members because they are in hiding."

Plus, the agency works side by side with the International Institute, which works with the influx of Afghan refugees.

The Collective Thread is hiring and ready to provide work for them. Currently, it has 11 sewers and they want to grow to 20.

The agency puts out about 100 pieces a day. The average purchase order is 300 to 500. 

Collective Thread even makes products for several St. Louis apparel brands.

This includes a company called VocalEase, which creates acoustically transparent masks for speech and singing.

Stipanovich is prideful of the culture they've also created. 

The 7,000 square foot site even has a prayer room for the women and is flexible with work hours, since some have kids.

"It’s a place they can feel cared for and loved," she said.

But to keep the wheels turning, it needs donations to continue growing.

"It costs $9,000 to train one person on the job. We may have one of our women in factory training them so that’s lost productivity for that woman," Stipanovich said.

This allows more women to get a foot in the door to kick start a new journey.


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