THE TORCHBEARER CHRONICLES – VICKI MILES
Camp Tecumseh changes lives. Most of us read that sentence with children in mind. After all, kids make up the majority of those we serve. However, the potency of Camp Tecumseh’s transformative power doesn’t wane as we get older. The palpable sense of love and the authentic sense of community are just as important for grandmothers as they are for their grandchildren, and that’s why, for over 20 years, a dedicated group of ladies regularly makes the pilgrimage to Camp Tecumseh for Quilt Camp.
While so many cite Quilt Camp as a home away from home; an opportunity to escape a busy life and relax and recharge, Vicki Miles found something else amidst the whirring thrum of sewing machines and the countless yards of patterned fabric. She found an opportunity to build an organization back home in her own community that models the love she feels every time she attends Quilt Camp.
In 2012, Vicki founded Sew-Loved, a non-profit organization that teaches underserved and marginalized women from the South Bend area how to quilt and sew. While the hands-on program teaches practical life skills, just as important is it’s ability to nurture values such as self-confidence, perseverance, creativity, and the joy of accomplishment. With a team of 12 volunteers, Sew-Loved is transforming the South Bend community the old fashioned way, the Tecumseh way: through loving, intentional relationships.
Finding Her Missional Move
Vicki’s friends have a saying about her, “She gets things done.” Her infectious smile and charming demeanor work alongside a type-a drive to achieve, a knack for transforming ideas into reality, and a lifelong commitment to the ministry of loving others.
In many ways, Vicki’s ability to make things happen stems from a deeply held belief that it’s our job as Christians to find our missional move; the intersection between our strengths and passions and God’s intentions. “God created us with our passions, our loves, and our strengths because He needs those things to accomplish His mission through us. He uses the best of us.”
As a college student in 1969 she met her husband Marty at a Youth for Christ coffee house in downtown Elkhart where they would minister on the weekends during their time at Bethel college. In the early 70’s they joined the Jesus People movement, lived communally, and regularly housed the musicians and bands that served as a precursor to today’s mainstream Christian artists.
Over the years while building a successful business, Vicki and her husband stayed involved in ministry. “We’ve worked with everyone. We’ve worked with kids, teens, addicts, cult worshippers, you name it. We’ve had the biggest hodge-podge of life experiences you could imagine.”
In the 2000’s they moved to Portugal to serve as volunteer staff for a church plant that served the international community where she served as the business manager for the office. After an initial flurry of organization and adjustment, she found herself with time on her hands, and an inability to sit still well. A lifelong quilter, and a quilt camp attendee since the 90’s, she joined a social organization with the hope of finding a group of quilters. “I attended a club fair but there was nothing for quilters. I was talking to a lady about something else, then, behind me, I hear the word ‘Ohio Star’ and ‘quilt’, and all of the sudden I’m trying to get out of the conversation I’m in so I don’t lose the voices behind me.” Vicki identified two women in conversation, trying to figure out a quilt square. “They asked if I had any idea how these pieces fit together, and I said I had made one before. From there, they invited me over to quilt.”
Over the course of two years, the trio expanded to include 35 quilters. They outgrew their houses and apartments, and ended up in the basement of the church. For Vicki, the importance of the experience didn’t stem from quilting. Instead, it solidified a lesson she had learned at Quilt Camp; building community through quilting works. “Quilting is an amazing platform to speak into others’ lives because if I just invited someone over to lunch and asked a personal question they’d deflect and give a short answer. If we’re sitting and working on something together with our heads down, and I ask the same question, they answer. It’s amazing.”
The relationships Vicki has made at Quilt Camp model the kinds of relationships she made in Portugal, and would foster at Sew-Loved. “I have friendships that go back to when I first came here. Those mean so much. We know know each other’s stories and struggles. We share things that our kids are going through in their lives, or in their marriages, or with their grandkids. You walk in and someone invariably always says, ‘hey, what’s happening with this?’ or, ‘is that thing any better?’.”
After moving back to Indiana she turned to her fellow quilters for advice about a potential ministry in her hometown of South Bend. She was volunteering at a food pantry trying to fix the computer database they used to track their visitors. “The system had been abandoned, so I’d sit and check-in on the people coming in and learn their names and their stories.” A number of middle-aged and older women would come from open to close. “One day I asked them if they had any hobbies. They replied that they couldn’t afford to have a hobby. I asked if knew how to sew. Some had learned in 5th grade before dropping out of school. Others had machines in their closet they didn’t know how to use. And that was it. That was my epiphany. It happened in a food pantry over a doughnut. I had found my missional move.”
Sew-Loved launched in November of 2012 after a conversation between Vicki and the director of the community center which hosted the food pantry. While the center had programs for kids, teens, and men, no programs existed for middle-age and older women. The program had two objectives: teach women how to sew and provide an opportunity for women to build relationships and community. After receiving a very excited blessing, but no funding, it was up to Vicki to figure out how to get the program off the ground.
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the issue of literacy. “When I started only one of the original ten women could identify a ¼” mark on a ruler and only two could identify full inches. There is a real functional illiteracy. They can read names, addresses, and phone numbers, but they can’t functionally read the words of a sentence. We have had to revamp the printed parts of the curriculum to be mostly pictures with less wordy instructions and teach mostly by rote.”
Quilting isn’t cheap. The tools, machines, and fabric can run hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and Vicki wasn’t sure where the money would come from. “My husband Marty suggested I ask people for stuff. Since then I’ve become the biggest shameless beggar you’ve ever met. I was a nervous wreck the first time I had to ask my friends for money or supplies but now I’m used to it. This program is working.”
She started with her friends in Quilt Camp who got behind the idea immediately and started contributing money and supplies. “The Quilt Camp ladies were really the first group that got behind this and said, ‘Yes, we want to help.’
The small group focused on inner city women living in poverty. Vicki and ten women worked out of a small, unfinished room in the community center. As the group grew, the logistics of the community center proved problematic. Because the center featured a food pantry, only individuals from certain zip codes could attend the quilt meetings. The center was only available for certain hours on certain days and hosting regular meetings was difficult. Likewise, the center drew clear distinctions between volunteers and participants. “The nametag said it. Everything said it. I found with the demographic we were working with that the labeling is a constant issue. They have to apply for everything and constantly stand in lines to prove they are poor. It’s demoralizing.”
So the hunt for a new home began. “With no regular income and just a few donations finding a new space was really difficult. Fortunately, God took care of it. A small group of regular donors pitched in to cover the rent every month as well as basic supplies like chairs and tables.”
The new home of Sew-Loved is on the third floor of a beautiful, spacious industrial building. For the 30+ participants, everything at sew-loved is free. While it’s clear after awhile who’s in charge, everybody has the chance to sew, including Vicki. “Our volunteers go in some days, pull out a project and join the group. It’s like a sit-and-sew. If somebody needs help, one of us jumps up and helps. I’ve found that having a project laying out really helps break down barriers.”
Recently, Vicki partnered with The Crossing, a network of alternative schools throughout Indiana that serves at-risk teens and offers a full high school diploma. The principal of the South Bend campus is pushing a job training initiative that gives students an opportunity to work with local businesses and organizations to learn skills that can ultimately steer students to a full-time job. While the program has been a success for the school’s male students, it’s had fewer opportunities tailored for female students. “I’ve had this vision for a while to have some of our older women mentor younger girls in an effort to help alleviate issues of lifelong generational poverty, but I could never figure out how to entice teen girls to sew with older women. This program makes it possible.”
The students walk across the parking lot from the school to the Sew-Loved building. Meeting twice a week for two and a half hours over a nine week term, Sew-Loved serves 12 girls at a time with plans to more than double that within the year. Vicki envisions a scenario in the near future where she can implement an industrial sewing curriculum where the girls can come in, get internship credit, and produce a product that can be sold that can support the whole ministry.
For Vicki, sewing comes second to building relationships. Her eyes light up, her speech quickens, and she starts gesturing with her entire body as she recounts the organization’s success stories. From introducing people to Christianity, to building-self esteem, to providing comfort, Vicki focuses on the needs of each individual that comes through the program.
At Sew-Loved strengthening community starts at the individual level. They meet women where they are in life and build them up from there. For some, that means building self-confidence. “We worked with a woman who had hands down the worst self image of anybody I had ever met. When she started sewing, she couldn’t get through it. She’d quit, get up from the table, and run out of the building sobbing. I’d chase her down the street, hang on to her, and bring her back. I’d show her all the mistakes I make when I sew and I’ve been sewing since I was 5 years old. We’d do this every couple of weeks until we finally made it through her first piece.”
At Sew-Loved finishing a piece is a big deal. All of the participants clap and cheer as the piece gets hung up on the wall after completion. “We all cheered for this girl and as I turned away to work with someone else, I turned back, and she’s standing in front of her piece. She’s sobbing. That shoulder shaking kind of sobbing. I asked her what was wrong, and she says, ‘no, not this time. No one has ever hung up anything I’ve ever done. Growing up, the only thing I was good for was taking care of the younger brothers and sisters.’ This is a 50 year old woman who has never seen anything hung up that she’s created. She’s never had anyone recognize something she created.”
At the start of the semester, a student from the Crossing came to Sew-Loved wearing a pair of dark sunglasses. According to her teachers and the principal, she never took them off. Nobody had seen her without her glasses. “She always had a reason: my makeup is a mess today, it’s too bright. On the third day, we’re all sewing and I look over and she has her glasses off. That’s huge. Even she was amazed at everything she was seeing without her glasses. Now, everyday, she comes in to sew and immediately takes her glasses off. She’s even starting to make eye contact with us. That never happened before.”
Many of the participants in Sew-Loved lead incredibly difficult lives. “Their stories will break your heart: neglect, abuse, homelessness, hunger. We have girls who get kicked out of their house because their parents just don’t want to feed them anymore. They couchsurf from home to home trying to survive.”
To help comfort and console those in need, Vicki trains her volunteers to use touch. “When you walk up and pat their head or hand the girls stiffen up at first, but within a few days they start coming in close for hugs. A few will just lay their heads on our shoulders and sit there until I say it’s time to sew. For the majority of these girls it’s the first time they’ve experienced touch that doesn’t harm them. As a mother and grandmother it’s heartbreaking.”
Changing a life by building a relationship can be a frustrating process. It’s hard to measure success but the rewards, when wrought, are so much richer. One of her volunteers was openly antagonistic about the organization’s Christian values when she first started attending. “Over a three year period I started seeing changes in her, she started smiling more. Then, recently, I overheard her in conversation telling somebody about the moment she decided to become a Christian. I was like, Touchdown!”
“It was the first place I had been in a really long time where love just flowed. It wasn’t sometimes, or iffy, it just flowed all the time. That constant flow of love is sprinkled with fairy dust or something.
Pam and Linda flank Vicki at a Quilt Camp table. Pam has known Vicki since the late 60’s where they attended Bethel College together and Linda was one of the first participants in Sew-Loved back in 2012. Together, they joke about the hard work of folding and sorting fabric, fixing sewing machines, and Vicki’s relentless drive to get things done.“Everyday is hard work!” Linda jokes. They show the kind of camaraderie that only develops over thousands of hours spent together. And that’s exactly the point. While every participant focuses on stitching together their quilt squares, Vicki sees the larger picture. In an area short on positive relationships, she’s stitching together a community.
As Linda, an original member of Sew-Loved and one of its most prolific volunteers, so eloquently states, “It was the first place I had been in a really long time where love just flowed. It wasn’t sometimes, or iffy, it just flowed all the time. And it softened me. It’s really softened me in ways that I didn’t believe were possible. I’ve never been a people person, and now I’m turning out to be that way. It is amazing for me. That constant flow of love is sprinkled with fairy dust or something. It has affected me, but I never really realized it. I woke up one day and realized that I wake up happy everyday. I wake up with a purpose.”