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Nonprofit Employing Refugee Women Resumes Operations, Making New Product: Face Masks

By Carista Ritchie

On March 20, a small, suburban Chicago sewing studio and storefront that employs refugee women came to a screeching halt. That’s when Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all nonessential businesses to close. And the studio at The Re:new Project in Glen Ellyn, IL, which produced handbags, jewelry, and baby items, was forced to close.

However, now operations at the Christian nonprofit have resumed. And the artisans, whose families depend on the income from Re:new, are  busy once again, making a desperately needed commodity—face masks.

According to Re:new marketing director, Jenny Rieger, Helping Hands Center in Countryside, IL approached the nonprofit group about two weeks ago, asking if the group could produce cloth, medical masks, which were in short supply.

Two artisans quickly designed a prototype according to CDC guidelines. Word about the masks spread. And soon, Re:new was flooded with requests for masks from a variety of sources, including nursing homes and medical centers.

“We are just a little sewing studio with women with these great sewing skills who can knock out a need,” Rieger said.

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Rieger explained that her boss, Executive Director Kristi Zboncak, quickly repurposed the group’s sewing studio and worked with the women to begin production. Then, when the situation got more critical, Re:new made arrangements for the women to work from home, giving them all the tools necessary.

Face mask produced by Re:new artisans

“(Zboncak) has stepped up and done everything she can to make sure the artisans are taken care of and that we can create a product that is helping so many during this time,” Rieger said.

Re:new is now producing an average of 150 masks a day, with confirmed orders of more than 2,000. Re:new has provided face masks for essential nonprofits and medical personnel at seven different locations for free, covering the cost with donations. (A donation of $5 covers the cost of materials and labor for one face mask.)

Re:new also has sold over 100 masks to individuals in the community for $7.49/mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued new guidelines, urging Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public settings.

Refugees Say They’re Glad They Can Bless Others

Josefina, who prefers not to use her last name, is one of the artisans who designed the facemask that Re:new is producing.

“Today, many others are in a bad situation, and being able to pass the love and help forward brings me a lot of satisfaction,” Josefina said.

Josefina added that Re:new has also greatly blessed her.

In 2017, Josefina fled her home in Venezuela because of the increasingly unstable political and social situation there. She arrived in the U.S. with only a single suitcase, very little knowledge of the English language, and scant means of supporting herself.

That’s when Josefina learned about Re:new and enrolled in an English class there. “I remember how nervous I felt walking into my first English class,” she said. “But anyone who has been to Re:new Project knows that it is the most welcoming place in the world.”

Soon afterwards, Josefina began working as an apprentice with a volunteer at the nonprofit so she could improve her sewing skills. She then became an artisan at Re:new, and today works as a studio manager.


Other women working at Re:new have similar stories.

Cicilia came to the U.S. in 2008 after escaping from Myanmar, where she said authorities were raiding homes and forcing citizens into forced labor. At Re:new, Cicilia learned to sew, which she said initially was a challenge.

“I had never sewed before . . . But now I like sewing!” she said. She added that she likes working at Re:new “because the hours allow me to care for my son.”

Re:new’s Humble Beginnings

Re:new was founded in 2009 by Rebecca Sandberg, who lived in Kenya in the early 90s and was deeply impacted by the refugees she met there. Many told harrowing stories of the conditions they had escaped. Some had been abused and even hunted. Some had even seen their children killed before their eyes or taken from them.

When Sandberg returned to the states, and met refugees here, she launched Re:new to help them. The ministry began in a 350 square-foot room with five sewing machines and four students. Today, Re:new operates out of a 2,500 square-foot space with 15 part-time employees and over a dozen students from all over the world.

Rieger said she’s noticed that now that the women are providing a product that’s critical for their communities, they’re especially enjoying their work. “The artisans feel that there is a purpose in their work,” she said.

For more information or to donate to Re:new’s face mask project, click here.

Carista Ritchie is a sophomore at Judson University, majoring in Christian Ministries. 




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5 Responses

  1. Wonderful story! Everyone wins! And what makes it glow is the fact they are serving a tremendous need. God bless them!

  2. We were lucky enough to be able to purchase a couple of these masks…they sellout quickly! Great quality and reasonable price!

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