How one organization is helping Akron women get back on their feet and into the workforce
by Megan Combs
After two years in prison for a drug violation, Kelly Bolyard, 26, found herself sleeping on her father’s floor with her then 8-year-old son. She didn’t have a home or a job. While in prison, she prayed that she would get away from her old hangouts and start fresh with a life full of meaning.
While attending church, Bolyard learned about Not Wasted, a job skills training program of Truly Reaching You (TRY) Ministries on Baird Street in Akron. Not Wasted invites incarcerated or addicted women to attend daily sewing classes to not only learn how to sew but also what employers expect of their workers, including basic workplace etiquette and work ethic.
“I came in needing help,” said Bolyard, who is now employed with Not Wasted as the program coordinator. “I’ve learned so much, and now I get to give back to other women and help change their lives.”
When the women are sewing, they’re creating bags and wallets out of recycled billboard vinyl. The straps on the bags are recycled automobile seatbelts that the women gather themselves from local junkyards. They also create rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings made from watch faces, bicycle gears and chains, and clock parts.
As program coordinator, Bolyard sets up the sewing room each day and prepares orders. She said the work is rewarding, and even though sewing isn’t a job that’s in high demand, she still learned a valuable skill and got to form relationships she’ll cherish forever.
“Coming home, I knew I would be high risk [for committing another crime] if I didn’t have a job,” Bolyard said. “But being here, I don’t feel the need to [repeat my violation] because I’m with people who understand, and it’s a loving community. If I have a need, I bring it to the group and we pray or talk about it.”
Not Wasted Director Lindsay Bye said you can find about a dozen women in the sewing room on any given day. They range from 20 years old to 60-plus. It’s basically one big therapy session, she said.
“This is a voluntary program, and it’s not court ordered, with the exception of community service,” Bye said. “We set recovery goals with each woman, and those can look different for each one.”
For example, one woman who is physically unable to work set a goal to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Another woman’s goal is to find steady employment.
“This isn’t a forever program,” Bye said. “It’s meant to be an eight- to 12-month program where you move on and move up.”
Women can graduate the program, but Bye said they don’t graduate until Not Wasted administrators think they’re ready to work. The goal is to learn skills that will lead to “sustainable employment and dignifying vocation,” she said.
“No matter how my day began, when I walk in here, I’m filled with peace and love,” Bolyard smiled. “Sewing is so therapeutic. When I sit down and start, it instantly eases my mind. And when I finish an order, it’s such a sense of accomplishment.”
Gwnetta McCloud, 59, moved to Akron in 1987 after being incarcerated in Detroit. After she was released, she began using cocaine. Her life went off the rails and she bounced from one halfway house to another. She said she used drugs for about 20 years until one day she decided she was tired of the pain.
“I prayed to God and he heard my cry,” McCloud said. “I’ll be sober 10 years in August.”
McCloud now serves Not Wasted as a volunteer, but she gets just as much out of it as the clients. She teaches the women how to sew, but she also helps them in their recovery and accountability.
“When I’m here, it means I’m not sitting at home,” McCloud said. “It keeps a lot of women from getting in trouble. Once you walk through this door, you’re alive. It’s very spiritual.”
Bye said two things holding women back from joining the program is the intimidation factor of both a sewing machine and religion. While Not Wasted is housed in a ministry and is faith-based, women are not required to participate in prayer or claim a denomination. As for the sewing machines, many of the women walk in without a clue about how to work one and now are so happy when they finish a bag.
“It’s all about women learning their intrinsic value,” Bye said. “After coming here and talking to other women, some leave toxic relationships, not because we asked them to, but because they realize their own worth.”
Besides learning workplace skills, Bye said Not Wasted is the best opportunity most women get to form meaningful relationships.
“There are very few opportunities for real relationships in our lives these days,” Bye said. “These relationships are just as important for the staff and volunteers as they are for the women. We’re in here, getting our hands dirty with people we may not have normally interacted with. Not Wasted puts everyone on the same page and at the same level.”
There is no fee for women to join Not Wasted, and the only requirement is that they work the program. They have to show up, be willing to participate and accept that there are parts of them that need to change in order to have a better life.
Later this year, Not Wasted will have their products for sale at three Pop Up Crafty Marts during Akron’s Art Walk on Feb. 6, March 5 and May 7. You can also buy products in Rubber City Clothing on High Street.
Bye will also be working to form a relationship with administrators at Northeast Reintegration Center in Cleveland who want a Not Wasted sewing program in their facility.