Up until her junior year in college, Amy Bardi had one goal in mind: go to New York and work in the fashion industry. But she had a few items to cross off her bucket list first.
One was visiting Africa, and what started as a jaunt became a haunting experience, and then a mission.
In her six weeks in Zambia, Bardi picked up a thread that would later become Clothed in Hope, a nonprofit that teaches impoverished women sewing, entrepreneurship and life skills that help them improve conditions in their families and the greater community. And as she picked up that thread, she felt a lot of what had been woven into her life before unravel.
“It was a really hard transition back to America, to try to make sense of the difference between what I had just lived for six weeks and then what I grew up with, my reality,” said Bardi, who grew up in Cary and now lives in Apex.
In Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, the mission group she traveled with spent time in relatively affluent parts of the city during the week. But on weekends, they’d visit Ng’ombe, a slum that seemed to Bardi to operate completely independently of the city surrounding it.
“I saw kids with large bellies, deceased animals, just kind of horrible conditions. But then I also saw kids playing, kids laughing, women enjoying spending time together at the markets shopping. I could see both existing at the same time,” she said. “The despair was just as loud to me as the opportunity and the hope and the joy of these people. And that, to me, was the most intriguing thing. How could these people be living in this condition and still possess so much hope and joy in their lives? That was the question that got me going throughout my stay there.”
Back in her apartment at the University of South Carolina, Bardi wrestled with how she might be able to ease the despair she saw. Visits to an orphanage in Ng’ombe stayed with her, and she wondered if there might be a way to help the children by helping their mothers – many of whom were still alive but unable, because of poor health or deep poverty, to care for their children.
“I want to see a day where there aren’t any kids in the orphanages because happy, healthy homes are able to take care of the kids and keep them in the family unit. So that’s kind of the heart behind it all,” Bardi said.
At first, it seemed like an impossible task. But Bardi had a track record of taking those on.
“My mom always joked that when I was growing up, I would have these crazy ideas, and I’d always have the next crazy idea,” said Bardi, now 26, who remembered setting up a lemonade stand to raise money to save manatees when she was a kid. “She saw this entrepreneurial spirit within me. I think that I just thought that this would be another crazy idea that wouldn’t amount to much of anything. But then I really dug deep to think of what does this mean to me, what does this mean to the community, could this be something that really works?”
She decided New York could wait, and Clothed in Hope became her priority, formally launching in 2012. For three years, Bardi lived in Zambia, working closely with an in-country director and other staff members in Ng’ombe. Through a lot of trial and error, Clothed in Hope workers found out what worked and what didn’t, and what they could teach that would have the most benefit for the women the program helped.
I want to see a day where there aren’t any kids in the orphanages because happy, healthy homes are able to take care of the kids and keep them in the family unit. So that’s kind of the heart behind it all.
Now, Clothed in Hope offers a 12-month program that trains women to sew and start a business making and tailoring clothes. The women – chosen based on both their need and motivation – receive microloans for their businesses and learn life skills and basic health concepts to help them support their families.
“Instead of us just handing out goods or giving machines or coming at development crisis in aid responses, we’re able to give a dignifying career path that will have a much more sustainable impact in the community as a whole,” Bardi explained. “We want to see the woman empowered, we want to see the family benefit from her having a really great job, and then we want to see the community develop as there’s more economic gain inside the community. When there are more skilled people, it also trickles down to the kids as they watch their moms … being really proud of their work and having good work to do. It impacts many different levels of the whole community.”
Anastasia Banda, a 2014 graduate of the Clothed in Hope program, was widowed with children – and did not have a lot of prospects for supporting them. In a video on Clothed in Hope’s website, she describes the impact of her success in terms of being able to pay school fees and feed her children three times a day.
“Some may see my family and think I have a husband, but it’s just me,” she says in the Nyanja language, translated in subtitles. “I can do everything by myself because of the skills I have gained.”
Room to grow
Last spring, Bardi returned to North Carolina and has turned her focus to fundraising and other ways to support the work continuing in Zambia. She keeps in touch through Skype calls and online, and visits Ng’ombe every six months.
“They have such a strong vision for where they want to take it,” Bardi said of the Clothed in Hope staff, “and I want to be able to support the vision that they have and allow them to grow that.”
Recently, she said, the staff came to her with the idea of spreading the program to a nearby community. That effort is awaiting a final dose of funding, which comes from single donations, monthly giving through “The Hope Club,” and sales of colorful textile items such as aprons, handbags and fabric bracelets from Clothed in Hope’s website.
Hope Club donors receive a newsletter that highlights the story of a different Clothed in Hope student or graduate each month. The stories of hardship can be heartbreaking to read, but Bardi found that the women share enthusiastically.
“The ladies just love having a voice,” she said. “They’re raised in a society where they don’t have a voice. They don’t have an opinion, they’re not allowed to be creative. So to even just sit down with a woman and say, ‘Hey, tell me your story, tell me what’s up with you,’ it just means the world to her to have someone to listen and to validate her feelings about her life and even take joy in the success that she’s experienced.”
Bardi is both proud and humbled by the success of her “crazy idea,” even if it’s far less glamorous than the Big Apple life she’d envisioned for herself before going to Zambia.
“I don’t think I regret any single bit of it,” she said. “It’s really hard work, but it’s way more rewarding than I ever imagined.”
Clothed in Hope
The nonprofit, founded in 2012, is funded through donations and through website sales.