Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Bridge to That Future: GARCO Sewing Works

How exciting to see the social entrepreneurship recognition earned by the Whole Works in Rifle in October 2015:

Reading it, I was reminded of the organization that created the bridge to this future, GarCO Sewing Works (GSW).

The Impetus
In 2011 CMC’s Customized Training and Workforce Dean Beth Shaw went to the county board of commissioners to present an idea—the creation of an industrial sewing training project that could equip people on public support with industrial sewing and process experience. In addition, this forward-looking presentation had the goal of post-training employment. The impetus and opportunity were based on the fact that industrial sewing groups in Denver and Grand Junction had a three-year wait-list, and that small lot sewing projects were not readily accepted by the industrial sewing factories.

The Philosophy
Usual thinking in a welfare to work program is to provide skills development and work habits. More than that, GARCO Sewing Work’s vision took into consideration that social girding to help people exit public assistance was to stabilize the personal side of their lives so they could have work lives. This included the wisdom that a whole person model “honoring their personal histories and “moving them out of the bondage they are in” are essential.  Hence, the model considered child care, needs, transportation needs, housing, and for some, and the flexibility to take care of personal appointments such as court hearings.

Seed Money and Development Milestones
Initially, the CMC project, GarCO Sewing Works (GSW), requested $26,000 from the commissioners to purchase industrial sewing machines, or the equivalent of the cost of two people moving off assistance rolls. The commission countered that if the GSW was still operational after one years, the machines would be theirs to keep. At the end of one year, GSW was not only operational, but seven individuals were off assistance.

Three years later, the thirty trainees who have moved off assistance translates into a savings of $450,000. 

A Credit to Partnerships
Though Beth will tell you that “Sewing is the vehicle, not the end game” to transferrable skills such as process and project management, here’s how that happens within GSW’s operations and how that developed with the support of many partnerships.

From the outset, the responsiveness of the county commissioners and Human Services were critical. Beth attributes their familiarity with Gateway Director, Jill Ziemann’s track record and CMC’s affiliation as contributors to county confidence levels for the initial proposal.

But before GWS had even opened it’s doors, Beth spotted a news article about CORE’s project to make Aspen free of plastic shopping bags. CORE had hit a rough spot because the most competitive bids for bags were from China. Her call and offer to make bags in Rifle, Colorado resulted in GSW’s first order, even though they were not yet open, for 4500 reusable bags.

Shortly thereafter, CORE had five pallets of automotive upholstery fabric delivered to GWS’s site. The pallets were too large to fit though the door and it was raining. So Beth, Jill, and two students carried the materials off the street themselves. And they were off to the races.

Shortly thereafter, artist Mary Noone offered eight rolls of canvas printed with her original design, and these materials helped filled another order for a city about to move away from plastic grocery bags.

Soon after, Beth discovered that the hospital had blue wrap that was also going to the landfill. As a follow-up Greg Jeung, a Valley View Green Team member, started deliveries.

The City of Aspen has been large as a repeat customer: Each year Aspen orders about 2000 bags to give citizens and visitors. They now have a “Take a bag, wash a bag, and leave a bag, “ receptacles around the city. And we are prototyping two sizes of windshield frost guards for citizen vehicles made from old (Big Agnes) sleeping bag pads for vehicles that are parked outside during the winter. (How did this come about? The city has an ordinance that you cannot idle a vehicle for more than 5 minutes, an emissions reduction effort.)

The Bridge to Whole Works
From early press on, GSW consistently expressed the need for a for-profit operation to employ successful trainees. So in 2013, they started monthly meetings with four interested investors, discussing a potential partnership. And though The Whole Works received invitations to locate elsewhere, the Rifle location was important for two reasons: 1) the location of GSW’s facility, and the opportunity to economically train both workers to new developments in the field.

While Dean Beth Shaw retires from her service at CMC at the end of 2015, the GSW will continue to serve citizens of Garfield County. As recently as last week, GSW trainees were assisting the Whole Works prepping a large order that required more workers at short notice.

GSW is an admirable example of Educational Entrepreneurship for Social Good. How forward looking that it included and accomplished the development of the next social benefit corporation, the Whole Works with its emphasis on “ethical and sustainable” jobs and products so workers can get off public assistance (

Applause. And sincere wishes for the continuation of these life- and community-changing enterprises.

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