At the end of Mass at San Jose Parish 20 years ago, an announcement: Anyone with sewing skills wishing to take part in a little handcrafting workshop should meet with Sister Bernice in the parish hall.
To the amazement of Susan Matteucci, a bright-eyed young organizer from Chicago who was looking to help empower low-income women, 75 women showed up.
What grew from that meeting was a small sewing cooperative of about 35 women that met two days a week in the parish hall. Their first paying jobs were assembling women’s shirts for the MarketPlace Handwork of India catalog and sewing Pendleton blankets into “doggy vestidos” for a Santa Fe company that exported them to Japan.
In 1996, they moved into a Quonset hut near the church. And in 2005, they moved to their current location on Fourth Street north of downtown.
Over the years, Southwest Creations Collaborative grew into a $1.5 million-a-year business with clients around the country and around the world. Any small manufacturing business that survives for 20 years deserves a party, and on Wednesday the company will celebrate two decades in business with a fiesta. Starting at 5 p.m., the sewing machines will go silent and mariachis will strike up some happy tunes.
But the core of Southwest Creations goes back to the San Jose parish hall – self-sufficiency and empowerment.
“If you give a woman a chance to earn an income, she’s going to invest it in her kids,” Matteucci says. “That’s been the core of our business.”
Matteucci, now the executive director, showed me around the 10,000-square-foot place the other day, and sewing machines were humming, patterns were piled up and racks hung with prototypes of robes and dresses, costumes and coveralls and pillows and tote bags.
But it’s a room in the back that Matteucci calls special attention to.
“This is the heart of us,” says Rosie Villarreal, one of the five founders of the collaborative who are still on staff and who runs the day care center.
Since the beginning, the focus has been on helping employees – most of them immigrant Hispanic women with children – succeed and make better lives for their families.
Employees start at $10 an hour and make $11 an hour on average. But they get on-site child care for their children or grandchildren for 25 cents an hour. Those kids don’t just get meals and love; they are the focus of a team approach as they get older and leave the day care for Head Start and then elementary school.
Jessica Aranda, the program’s director, said that in addition to child care, the company’s 32 employees get two hours each month of paid time off per child to attend school conferences, register a child at school, handle a problem at school or go to a child’s recital or play or open house.
“The idea of taking unpaid leave isn’t a reality for low-wage workers,” Aranda said, so Southwest Creations eliminates that stress.
Employees also must bring in their children’s report cards every eight weeks so any problems can be spotted early and taken care of. A college readiness class is offered for students and their parents.
This engagement in families has paid off. Children and grandchildren of employees have a 98 percent high school graduation rate, and 86 percent have gone on to college.
Employees also get help with their own advancement.
There are on-site computer and citizenship classes. And employees who commit to spend four hours a week attending an on-site GED class get two of those hours as paid time off. Seventeen people got GEDs this year. More often than not, employees stay. But if they leave, that’s OK.
“When she leaves, she will have her GED, have her citizenship, be able to speak better English and her kids will have graduated from high school and have the opportunity to go to college,” Matteucci says. “We are expecting people to have super high expectations of themselves and their families and their work. And contrary to what you might think, it actually helps our business run better. What we do is just good business.”
Southwest Creations is a nonprofit, and at its beginning the collaborative was funded entirely by grants. For the past three or four years, the business has been completely covered by revenue.
The collaborative has 10 customers now, and its biggest client is a desiccant manufacturer – those “do not eat” packets found in everything from pills to peanuts to overseas shipping containers. Employees also make some familiar products – pillows for West Elm and robes for Ten Thousand Waves.
Flora Lopez started working for the collaborative 20 years ago in the parish hall, doing embroidery. She was a recent immigrant with two small children. Today she is the director of leadership development and her family is an example of how the philosophy of caring for the whole family pays off.
“As a mother, my priority was my family,” Lopez remembers. She wanted to work, but she didn’t want to leave her daughters and the collaborative allowed her to wrap her work life and family life together.
Her daughters today? One is about to graduate from the University of New Mexico with a degree in nuclear engineering and is shopping for graduate programs, another is a junior studying pre-law at UNM and the youngest is a high school junior.
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