Answer for poverty? It’s in the bag

This is the story of how empty sacks made by people with empty pockets came to America and fulfilled hopes of people on two continents.

Like a lot of good ideas, ReachGlobal’s Seat Sack Project began not with a grand plan, but with one of those moments when friendship, need and opportunity find something to do together.

One day in spring 2009, Peter Mau, principal at Oakdale Elementary School, Oakdale, Minn., noticed that one of his teachers had brought in some cloth bags for her students to hang over the backs of their chairs. Many of the kids sit at tables instead of individual desks, and the bags provided a handy place to store their books.

Peter wondered if the school couldn’t find a way to give bags to every student. School budgets being what they are, he also wondered how the school could provide sacks for the 200 of its 520 students who don’t have desks.

Enter Hope Church, also in Oakdale.

For the previous two years, volunteers from Hope had been doing odd jobs and cleanup work at the school as part of the church’s communitywide ServFest. Peter called Todd Christianson, the coordinator of ServFest, and asked him if the church might think about providing seat sacks to the kids at Oakdale.

Todd mentioned the request at a church leadership meeting a few days later. The idea of cloth bags immediately brought to leaders’ minds a third and a fourth player– ReachGlobal and the Elikya Center in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo, near the city of Gemena.

Machines Start to Hum

inthebagWhen The Congo Evangelical Church of the Ubangi (CECU) and ReachGlobal created the Elikya Center in 2005, the idea was to teach widows, orphans and teenage mothers marketable skills as they struggled to recover from the most recent Congolese civil war. More than 5.4 million people died in the conflicts, which began in 1996 and did not end officially until 2009.

The church built Elikya (“Hope” in the Linglala language) in 2005 on land that it had purchased in 1995, before the conflicts delayed development. Today, Elikya houses about 30 students, who stay for a nine-month course of classes on biblical worldview, life skills, survival skills and vocational skills.

“Widows in Congo have no rights,” says Rachel Martin, a ReachGlobal worker who lived in DRC for 12 years. “They’ve lost their husbands. They have nothing. They can be kicked out of their homes and lose their pots and pans and everything.”

To aid the widows and other residents in the vocational skills effort, Hope Church donated several sewing machines to Elikya in 2007. But the question was, after the men and women learned how to sew, who would buy their goods?

“So we’d provided them sewing machines, and we thought, well, here we have this really great opportunity,” Todd says. “We’ve got these schools locally we’re trying to minister to who want some book bags for the back of their chairs, and we have these people in Africa who are dying to do some sewing. Let’s put the two things together.”

The Sacks Come Back

After deciding on a design with Rachel Bliss, another ReachGlobal staff member, a woman at Hope donated several bolts of cloth to make the main body of the sacks, with less-sturdy Congolese fabric added for decoration. Workers at Elikya sewed more than 500 sacks, which were brought back by several people serving on short-term missions teams.

Instead of charging students for the sacks, attendees at Hope Church “sponsored” sacks one Sunday morning for $10 as a way to both support their local schools and the residents at Elikya. The donated money goes back to Elikya and then to the people who make the sacks.

The church then delivered the sacks to Oakdale Elementary and nearby Carver Elementary School. And because the seat sacks contain colorful Congolese fabric, the schools were able to use them as teaching tools.

“I really like the connection there,” Peter says. “It’s useful for kids to understand … the idea that today, we live in a global society and things are made all over the world. For the people who make those things, what they get paid for those things impacts their lives, and the training they get impacts their lives.”

Residents at Elikya also are being trained in masonry, carpentry, tailoring, soap-making, bee-keeping and honey-gathering. They also tend their own gardens. However, because the local infrastructure and economy are so poor, marketing goods inside and outside the country is a huge challenge.

“It’s been hard to find sewing projects that they can do over there that we can sell here,” says Rachel, who lived in the DRC from 1984 to 1996. “The seat sack has potential if we can start getting word out to churches. It gives them [churches] an opportunity to minister locally and internationally at the same time.”

As Elikya grows, Rachel is hoping that it becomes self-sustaining with the food from its gardens and with its businesses. However, the goal isn’t to grow Elikya bigger; rather, Rachel hopes that it will function as a pilot center for communities represented by the 900 other Congolese Free Churches scattered across the northwest area of DRC.

“We’re hoping that it can be duplicated and that there can be other smaller centers closer to where the people are in their different church regions,” Rachel says.

For now, the seat sacks have served a bigger role than simply storing math and English books.

“It’s been great for us,” Peter says. “I go into classrooms and see those sacks, even to this day, I get a little smile on my face thinking about the amazing way it unfolded.”

What you can do:

Participate

Coordinate a Seat Sack Project at your church! Contact Rachel Martin to set up a project.

Pray

  • Pray that God would open up more markets for goods made at Elikya.
  • Pray that more similar projects would open up at other Congolese Free Churches.
  • Pray that the skills learned at Elikya and other similar centers would indeed provide a way for people to make a living.

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