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CATHOLIC CHARITIES' SEWING PROGRAM HELPS STUDENTS REALIZE THEIR DREAMS

For as long as she can remember, Toni Eberhardt has had a dream.

It was a wonderful dream about someday becoming a fashion designer. Perhaps she would own a little shop where she would create and sell beautiful clothes.

That was before January. Since then, thanks to a sewing project spearheaded by Catholic Charities, Ms. Eberhardt, 35, has begun forming a plan to transform her dream into reality.

"It's nice to make things for yourself and your children," she said. "But I want to start a business. I will, too. I'm looking for a backer."

Ms. Eberhardt is one of 11 women enrolled in a sewing course at the Commodore Perry Project. Each Tuesday and Thursday, they report for three hours to "The Sewing Place," a third-floor apartment above the Catholic Charities Social Services Center. The course began in January and ends in June.

Michelle Robinson, 25, who was showing off a two-piece suit she made during class last week, said she's ready to begin sewing another one.

"I love it -- it's fun," she said about the class. "Everybody here is great. We all get along."

The oldest member of the class, Julia Barnett, 84, said she has been sewing most of her life but has gained lots of new skills since starting the course.

"I never learned to use a pattern or how to figure out how much material I need," she said.

Sister Maryanne Weldon, director of outreach services for Catholic Charities, said the project is a joint venture of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the Erie County Cooperative Extension Service and Catholic Charities.

"Catholic Charities is the glue that made it all come together," she said. "We were able to pull all the pieces together."

Catherine Talty, administrator of tenant relations for the Housing Authority, said the authority obtained a $15,056 grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund the project. Some of the money was used to buy sewing machines. The rest is being used to pay the instructor and an aide -- who provides child care for children of the students -- and to buy sewing materials, including fabrics.

The authority also provides the space for the sewing and child-care areas for a nominal fee.

Barbara Bristol of the Extension Service also was involved in setting up the program.

The sewing course is one of several Catholic Charities programs that assisted nearly 210,000 people last year. Catholic Charities, the human services arm of the Catholic Diocese, will attempt to raise $8.1 million to continue its work during its 72nd annual appeal April 2 through 9.

Besides teaching the women to sew, the classes have helped them build self-esteem and make new friends, said Sister Joan Sherry, the outreach coordinator who oversees the Catholic Charities office in the Perry Project.

She currently is looking for donations of sewing machines that the women keep for their sewing projects when they complete the course.

Sister Sherry credits the sewing instructor, Carolyn Wrinn, with "teaching them to help one another, to share and to get along."

"They are doing great. They are doing things they want to do. There is a lot of enthusiasm," Ms. Wrinn said. "Some days the discussions are more than sewing."

"This program has surpassed our expectations," Ms. Talty agreed. "They have learned a lot of life skills."

For some of the women, the discovery of a talent for sewing might help them get off welfare rolls, Sister Weldon said.

"It could lead to a job doing alterations in a store or it might be the forerunner of an urban cottage industry," she said.

To show off their sewing skills, the women will model some of their creations during a program in June in the Perry Project auditorium. They also will attempt to sell some of their handiwork during a Housing Authority bazaar this April in City Hall.

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