Guests at a Guadalupe Social Services Open House in December look at bags made by women in Immokalee as part of a new Women's Hands empowerment program of Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc.

Handbags empower Immokalee women

Immokalee | Migrant women in Immokalee have a new opportunity to earn money for their families through an empowerment program sponsored by the Guadalupe Social Services of Catholic Charities.

The Women’s Hands Program was the idea of the owners of the Guadalupe Roastery in nearby Ave Maria. The owners approached Peggy Rodriguez, program director of Guadalupe Social Services, to learn if clients would be interested in a sewing co-op.

Several women, who already knew how to sew, expressed an interest. The Guadalupe Roastery provided heavy duty sewing machines and the supplies needed to start the enterprise. A survey of the area determined there would be a demand for the burlap handbags, so it was agreed that the sewing would commence.

The women come to the Guadalupe Social Service offices each week and use the dining room to do their work. The bags come in three sizes, with 75 percent of what is earned going directly back to the women while 25 goes toward the purchase of supplies. The bags cost $35, $30 and $25 respectively.

“These migrant women who we recruited are usually home taking care of their children and have no other opportunities of bringing money home,” Rodriguez explained.

The clients are first-generation immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries who have a limited education and few real job opportunities as each has young children at home.
The women of Women’s Hands work as a community, making decisions together and learning basic business skills with the guidance of Guadalupe Social Services. The goal of this micro-enterprise is to have the entire effort run and coordinated by the women themselves.

Already, the group is planning to expand their selections to include aprons and other items which will be offered soon.

The idea of empowering clients is not new and is building on the success of such Catholic Charities efforts in nearby Naples, Rodriguez explained.

“We are trying to see where we can go with this. This is just one form of empowering women to be able to financially support their household so as to not have to only rely on their husbands who are working in the fields.”

Income from picking fruits and vegetables in the fields can vary drastically depending on crop production, weather and the numbers of other pickers vying for the labor-intensive jobs.

Another part of the empowerment program is the English as a Second Language program. Available in various forms through the years which solely relied on volunteers, Rodriguez has hired a permanent part-time teacher.

“This allows the teacher to get to know the students and helps everyone grow comfortable with learning,” Rodriguez said. “The idea is to have them learn enough English to help them enroll in a GED course or certificate program at the technical center. This will improve their lives and their children’s lives.”

Rodriguez described these and other efforts of Guadalupe Social Services during a December meeting of the Board of Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc. The response to the empowerment programs was enthusiastic as several Board members actually bought some of the handbags.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane complimented Rodriguez for taking the initiative to empower these clients in different ways.

“You are creating a micro-industry that is a great idea which has been proven repeatedly,” Bishop Dewane said. “Well done.”

Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice CEO Philomena Pereira echoed the sentiments of the Bishop and said empowerment efforts are taking place throughout the Diocese as a proven way to raise the self-esteem and opportunities for future success for many in the community.

Guadalupe Social Services also offers financial assistance, a clothing room and shower program, food pantry and soup kitchen serving thousands of need individuals and families throughout Immokalee.