Fear of the Machine
"You hide when you use. You hide your [pills]. So you just start covering it up because you don’t want anybody to know you are making this mistake," says Jules. "There’s nothing but hiding in addiction."
As she sits over the sewing machine, her body square, the cool fabric in her hands, her heart beats fast. She places the fabric onto the machine and pushes it through the presser foot, lining the fabric to the sewing guide. She lowers the presser foot lever with a quiet thunk. The presser foot falls, snapping to its place, as if being called to attention.
For women recovering from drug addiction, homelessness, or cycles of poverty and abuse, the sewing machine is a training ground – one that teaches them about harmony, perseverance, and overcoming. / Credit: Whitney Porter
Her right hand grabs the hand wheel. She spins, lowering the needle into the fabric. Her foot hovers over the pedal, mere centimeters between sole and power. And fear takes over. What ifs... What if I mess up? What if the needle gets stuck? What if I can’t go back? What if the line isn’t straight? What if the thread tangles? What will I look like? What if I have to ask for help? What if I fail?
The sewing machine can be a place of fear or a place of triumph. Of mistake and frustration, or of beauty and creativity. It can be a place of powerlessness, or control.
For the women of Project Free2Fly, the sewing machine is all those things. Because it takes all of those things to follow the bridge from recovery to sustainability.
"Everything that I can describe about the sewing machine, I can relate to life," Jules explains. / Credit: Whitney Porter
Jules is an employee of Project Free2Fly, and like the other women employed here, she’s here because she’s in recovery. She’s here because she’s seeking sustainability.
Her hands work quickly as she cuts the leather on the pair of tassel earrings she’s constructing. “Nobody’s perfect. Push the pedal, let it go, and then be willing to just make mistake after mistake after mistake.”
Jules reviews a list of what she needs to do today before beginning her work. / Credit: Whitney Porter
There is no growth without mistakes, and in this particular context, learning to accept failure is the first step along the journey.
The Space Between
“In recovery house, most of your focus is on your addiction. It’s gonna be on your rapes, and your abuse, and your divorce, and your jail times, and your arrests…do you know what I mean?” Jules pauses to look out the window. “I mean, here at Free2Fly, they never even asked ‘How many times have you been arrested?’ I’m just allowed to be who I am here.”
Credit: Whitney Porter
Glass windows in the workshop open up to a main street in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee. Passersby on their way to Gardener’s Market for sandwiches or to the post office can catch a glimpse of the flurry of work happening in the bright, cheerful workshop.
Fabrics in bright colors with floral pops, denim squares, and black and white stripes add dimension to the all-white workspace. A row of custom-made handbags hang in one window, ready to be sent out to fill orders.
The wide windows of the workshop are open to the world, as if to say it’s proud of what’s being done in this shop.
Project Free2Fly Founder Hailey Johnston collaborates with Creative Director Joanna Ivey. / Credit: Whitney Porter
Project Free2Fly was founded by Hailey Johnston who had a simple vision: to help women in her community overcome obstacles like addiction, homelessness, or abuse. The skill of sewing is taught and used as transitional employment for women recovering from those circumstances. The products the women make as employees of Project Free2Fly are sold locally in a downtown store, and across the United States in an online shop. The beautifully crafted handbags, totes, and clutches, jewelry, and portfolios would rival the work of other custom and high-end, handmade bags.
Beyond the bags, Project Free2Fly is answering one of the most critical questions in destructive dependency – what happens in the space between recovery and sustainability?
The answer to that question can make or break those dealing with addiction, abuse, homelessness, or other destructive cycles of dependency. It’s in that space where relapse most often occurs. It’s in that space where those in abusive situations find themselves returning to old environments. And it’s in that space where recovery can feel miles away from sustainability.
The first step is usually a recovery program and facility, which provides a safe and healthy environment to achieve sober living. Conversations are focused on the individual’s past and present, so they can maintain a sober life. Residents’ activities are closely monitored and tightly controlled. The programs can be effective at achieving sobriety. But when it comes time to leave, stepping out on their own can feel like a leap too far.
"It wasn't the real world," explains Ishah, one of the women currently employed by Project Free2Fly. "Here, the counseling [is] more hands-on, helping you walk out real life and apply the things that I learned in normal society.
Many have no home, no car, no bank account, and no job. Everyday responsibilities are completely overwhelming. “We offer steps towards sustainability,” says Project Free2Fly’s president, Hailey. “We work with women who have taken the first steps to overcome whatever objective they are working through.”
Project Free2Fly works with the main rehabilitation programs in the city of Cleveland to identify women who are ready to make the move from recovery to sustainable life. The organization then hires the women and teaches them all the skills that they need to manufacture the products that are sold in their shop.
New employees of Free2Fly start out at two days a week. They might start on something simple like pouches or simple key chains. Eventually, they take on more work days and they graduate to more complicated designs and materials, like handbags and leather.
Jessica says it was hard at first, but she soon learned that as long as you don't give up, things will get better. / Credit: Whitney Porter
Jessica is one such employee, and she echoed the importance of a bridge. "Once you get into [addiction] and get in so deep with it, you know it's just hard to stop. It's really just hard to stop on your own...For a lot of people it takes help...to get you out of the environment that you came from."
This is the longest Jessica has ever had a job, and she admits that she wouldn't be where she is today without support. "When Free2Fly came in, they were like, 'What do you want to do with your life? What's your next step? What goals do you have? You know, let us help you.'"
Jessica has her own apartment now and has gone back to school while continuing to work. She attributes much of her confidence to this job and gets emotional talking about her experience.
"I don't really think that people realize what goes on inside these walls and just how beautiful it is...what we've come from to where we are at now."
A Common Thread
While learning to sew, the women are learning the skills needed to be productive and valuable employees. Project Free2Fly provides them with mentoring, counseling services, and special programming and personal development opportunities.
Each employee of Project Free2Fly is paired with a mentor. They meet with their mentor once a week to talk about their personal circumstances, issues in the workplace, family challenges, or any number of issues that impacts the whole person.
"We don't feel like were doing it alone," says Shelby. "We have somebody there to help." / Credit: Whitney Porter
Shelby is a 19-year-old employee at Project Free2Fly. On this day, she walks around the workshop, pulls out her sewing box, and begins taking out fabric and swatches. She speaks with an unobtrusive voice, the kind you have to lean into to fully hear.
"These were practice pieces from when I first started," she says quietly. She joined Project Free2Fly in the fall. "I've always done Zuri pouches and key fobs."
In her box, she keeps scraps. At Free2Fly, they try not to waste anything, she says. Scraps are used for practice, each mismatched piece paired with another to make something beautiful.
In fact, each interaction in the workshop, whether between the employees or the creative director or with mentors is intentional. Free2Fly is a community, each person with her own history, but with common threads that bring them together.
"Being here around women that all have struggles and they're all so real...it just makes it easier to be open with yourself and with other people," says Shelby.
Keenon is a mentor two times over and has built relationships that continue for the long-term, even beyond the length of the program. / Credit: Whitney Porter
Keenon is Shelby’s mentor for Project Free2Fly, where she works with her outside of Shelby’s regular employee duties in the workshop. “These women are coming from hard places, and they are just learning the skills to be a good worker no matter where they are. They’re learning to understand respect and diligence,” says Keenon.
Keenon and Shelby meet every week, or more if necessary. They set goals. They talk about Shelby’s son and how he’s doing in school.
"I have more confidence...I didn't give up, and I'm so glad I didn't."
In addition to mentoring, the women take programs and classes to provide life skills training, like how to manage a budget, how to manage time, how to deal with conflict, or even how to perform regular car maintenance. The goal with all of the programming is to help the women feel empowered and to grow in their skills, so that when it comes time for them to be on their own, they are equipped.
“We want to be a healthy support system for them where they can reach their full potential. We never want to create dependency on us. We want them to learn these skills on their own, so that when they’re ready to leave, they are all set,” says Program Director Bekah McCay. They are free to fly.
From Fear to Fly
By the time Kati was sixteen years old, she was having blackout drinking binges.
“I started dabbling in drugs in high school. Just partying and having fun, I thought it was normal and I figured I would phase out of that style,” says Kati.
She didn’t. Kati got a full-ride Hope Scholarship to the University of Georgia, but while she was there, she kept using. Eventually, her full-blown cocaine addiction cost Kati her scholarship. She tried to get help at a halfway house, but she relapsed and found crystal meth.
"It's cyclical...you grow up, and there's a belief pattern of I can't do any better."
“That really took me down quickly,” says Kati. “A whole different life started then.”
Kati’s parents cut her off, telling her she had to get sober before she could come around. She spent the next seven years on the streets. She started selling drugs and living in trap houses.
“I slowly became a woman I never would have thought I would have been,” says Kati. “Ultimately I started getting arrested for petty things at first, and then I got some big charges.”
Kati was eventually sent to prison. It was then that her mom stepped in and asked her to join a recovery program. When a judge decided to give her a chance with eight years probation, including two at a recovery program, Kati came to Tennessee. After two years at her recovery program, she was connected to Project Free2Fly.
What Katie found at Project Free2Fly wasn't pity, she says. "It was a, 'You can do this, so let's do it. As women, lets come together and do it.'" / Credit: Whitney Porter
“Free2Fly was my first structured job,” says Kati. “When I got here I couldn’t sew a button on. It was like ‘This is crazy.’ I was scared to break machines. I was really just afraid and timid and unsure of myself.”
The women at Free2Fly helped Kati set goals and take weekly steps to meet those goals. When Katie said she wanted to go back to college, they encouraged her.
“I had a criminal record that was terrible embarrassing – I still do. It just seemed like a long shot, but Free2Fly taught me how to set small, obtainable goals.”
Step by step, they worked together to get Kati into college.
She will graduate this spring and plans to attend law school in the fall. Eventually, she wants to help incarcerated women.
“Second chances are important,” says Kati. “Free2Fly wasn’t a free ride. They expected me to work hard, and they showed me grace, and I needed that...You can't imagine all that it entails to put a life back together."
Joanna Ivey is Creative Director at Project Free2Fly. She works on the front line with the women day-in and day-out in the workshop. She means business – with a whole lot of grace.
Joanna teaches the women how to sew and carry out both simple and sophisticated designs. / Credit: Whitney Porter
“Sewing is hard,” says Joanna. “It takes fight to learn your machine. It takes some eagerness. It takes perseverance.”
Joanna has the challenge of striking the balance between producing quality products and managing a work room of women who are often in a fragile state.
Still, Joanna treats the workshop like a business and she reminds the women that customers pay for the products they create, and they expect quality products. She expects them to get the job done.
“I don’t keep anything from them,” says Joanna. “I help them see the business. It gives them ownership and responsibility over the products that we sell. That’s what gives them power, and they make the correlation to life.”
There’s also a lot of grace for days when things are hard. The women are often in custody battles. They have to make court appearances. They are looking for homes and getting back on their feet. The mentors and program director, Bekah, are on hand to provide support.
Joanna tells the women often “If you’re in a good place or a poor place, mentally or emotionally, let me know because there is grace for what you are working on.” This sisterhood mentality is unique and provides an important transitional work environment as the women move towards a sustainable life – something they might not find at another employer.
"They really, really care, like truly care about you," says Project Free2Fly employee DeAndrea. "We all really work together as like a family, you know? No matter what, if you're having a bad day, you can always talk to one of them."
DeAndrea came to Free2Fly after finding herself homeless. She discovered the support she needed at Free2Fly and works hard to create a better future for her kids. / Credit: Whitney Porter
When they first start at Project Free2Fly, the women are timid and fragile. But over time a transformation takes place. The women start to feel empowered by their work.
“They’re succeeding and they know it,” says Joanna. “They know how to get their products done and make beautiful things. They’ve learned to push through.”
“I feel free here,” says Julie, a Project Free2Fly employee. “I feel like I’m empowered to move forward in my life and that I have a community of women standing beside me cheering me on for each thing. Each thing that comes…whether it’s that I need to have a conversation with somebody, or I need a new home.”
Julie remembers when she first started at Free2Fly and couldn't sew on a button. But that soon changed, and along with her sewing skills came newfound confidence. / Credit: Whitney Porter
Julie has not forgotten the past. "It's a pain that is just unreal...when you're caught in an addiction like that, you just want to cover it, so it's just a never-ending process of trying to make a pain go away that you can't make go away." But at Project Free2Fly, she has learned to move forward and is rebuilding her life.
"If I can become whole, I'll do whatever it takes."
"[They] help us to set realistic goals for the week, and help us to reach those milestones, those little things. We forget that the little bitty steps that we make are really huge things."
For Julie, those small accomplishments build confidence to keep going. "Being able to stand on your own feet, to most people, that's just something you get, but when you're starting over, it's huge. It's huge to have a roof over your head when you've been in a pit."
Julie works hard and is optimistic about the future. "I look at people in recovery and some people just don't have a fighting chance it seems like, but there is help and there is hope available...people just have to be willing to change."
Project Free2Fly is building a community of women who are taking steps toward a better future. Call it a stepping stone or a bridge, hope is emerging from the small light-filled shop in downtown Cleveland.
And hope is emerging from an abandoned blue building around the corner from the workshop. Project Free2Fly purchased the building this year so they can expand the number of women they are able to serve. The building will provide a significantly larger workspace so they can employ more women and have meeting space for more mentors and programming. Apartments on the second floor will serve as affordable housing to employees of Project Free2Fly.
Project Free2Fly will soon move to a larger space around the corner. / Credit: Whitney Porter
“We take pride in our city,” says Hailey. “We want to invest in our city, and this is the next phase of that investment. And maybe one day, we can repeat this model in other cities.”
Back in the workshop, Jules finishes up the tassle earrings she’s been working on.
Someone asks, “When was the last time you felt brave?”
Jules doesn’t hesitate.
“Today,” Jules says. “I was asking about these earrings. I didn’t want to. I wanted to figure it out. I have to ask more than I’ve ever asked in my whole life. And do you know what? Now I know how.”
When was the last time you felt brave? I don't know how I would answer this question, but for the women at Project Free2Fly, every day is brave.
Julia, Jessica, Julie T, Julie B, Ishah, Katie, Shelby, Crystal, and DeAndrea – thank you for your brave, and for sharing your stories with such openness.
To our team of creatives – Jessica, Whitney, and Angela – thank you for honoring these stories of courage and overcoming. Your writing, photography, and film humanize statistics and give voice to the power of second chances.
A little bit of hard work and a lot of grace go a long way. May we all remember to never give up... on other people or ourselves.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly