Cape High teacher launches sewing school in Kenya

Rehoboth Beach Sunrise Rotary grant to outfit school
March 5, 2019

Just two years after her first mission to Kenya, Cape High family and consumer sciences teacher Alayna Aiken is set to open a sewing school in the small village of Turkwel.

On her first visit, Aiken was touched by the Pokot, an impoverished tribe she said were abandoned by their government.

“The women are illiterate and unskilled,” she said. “No one wants to hire them. Only the men are offered work, and it’s manual labor. This is the first time someone is paying attention to the women.”

In summer 2017, Aiken, husband Chris, and children Kimberly and Josiah returned to Kenya with 10 treadle sewing machines purchased with donations from friends and family. Aiken held sewing lessons in a church made of mud.

Aiken was thrilled by how excited and proud the women were when they learned to make clothing. She said the Pokot women no longer have to travel for hours to buy school uniforms for their children, and they can earn money by sewing for other families. They also created bylaws governing the sewing group.

“Sewing has empowered them,” she said. “They’re so hungry to learn, and that motivates me as a teacher.”

Aiken said she had a vision to create a sewing boarding school so women across the region could attend during the week and return to their families on the weekend. Women who train at the school will then be able to teach others in their villages to sew.

“It will be a hub for all the remote villages, which will then have satellite sewing centers because each family can’t afford to buy a sewing machine,” she said.

A congregation that abandoned the construction of a church years ago agreed to trade the partially built structure with Aiken for $15,000, the amount it had spent on construction thus far. To concentrate fundraising efforts, Aiken launched the nonprofit Kenya Gather, which has already raised more than $6,500.

Water from a local source can be piped to the school, and electricity can be hooked up for free. During the week, women will stay in ranch houses formerly used by employees of an electric company.

“We’re naming it the Sunrise Sewing School in honor of the Rehoboth Sunrise Rotary Club,” she said. “They encouraged me to dream bigger for the women. Now, there will be a real school in the absolute middle of nowhere to meet the needs of people who otherwise are being forgotten by the government.”

Rehoboth Beach Sunrise Rotary Club President Ed Gossett said about a year ago, Aiken told club members about her visits to Pokot to teach the women how to sew.

“That is where our global project ‘Sewing Machines Making a Difference in Kenya’ got its beginning,” Gossett said.

Rehoboth Beach Sunrise Rotary and Eastern Shore Rotary Clubs of District 7630 are raising funds for the project, which will be matched by the Rotary Foundation World Fund, for a total of nearly $34,000.  

“This will go toward sewing machines, cutting tables, stools, rulers, shears, scissors, pins, drafting tools, tailoring chalk, thread and fabric, bunk beds for the students and septic tank installation,” Gossett said.

Aiken said over spring break, she will head to Kenya to purchase the building, start clearing the land and install windows and doors. In July, she will return to outfit the school using Rotary grant funds and open the doors to its first students.

Once women have learned to sew, Aiken said she will help them create business partnerships so sewing is not outsourced to other regions or countries.

“Just a couple extra dollars a week is big to them. Their economy is so different,” she said.

Aiken said the local tribal chief is designating five acres around the school so it can expand to teach other trades like masonry and plumbing. She hopes when the school is established, the Kenyan government will take notice and begin investing in the people and their education.

“Kenya feels like home,” Aiken said. “My heart is with these sewing women.”

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