ROCHESTER — Natalie García likes to learn new things.
So when the county’s Department of Social Services referred her to Sonia Rodríguez’s Dorcas sewing program, it was a perfect fit. Since joining the program to learn sewing and tailoring skills, García said that she has developed skills she never would have thought possible. While she knew how to hand stitch, knit and crochet, she never had tried using a sewing machine.
"It’s a good experience," García said. "So, I can be able to make my own clothes and make some money."
The single mother of a 10-month-old son, García moved to Rochester three years ago. After losing a job at a nursing home, she began receiving assistance from the county "to get on my feet," she explained.
"It’s really hard to get a job," added García, 25. "I think (this program) is awesome to help people … so they can learn different skills to provide for their families that much more."
Rodríguez said that she developed the idea to help women through Dorcas and other ministries several years ago after volunteering with the Judicial Process Commission. The commission — a volunteer group of educators, attorneys and clergy that advocates for social justice within the legal system — provides re-entry assistance for women coming out of jail, Rodríguez explained. She provided counseling for the women at the Monroe County Jail in Henrietta, she added.
"That’s where I saw the need," Rodríguez said. "These people need to go to a place when they get out of jail."
So, she consulted with her church, Hope Christian Fellowship in Charlotte, which helped her obtain a space for a residential re-entry program called "Out of Darkness into the Light," Rodríguez explained. The church also donated space for the Dorcas sewing ministry at its building on Lake Avenue, she added.
The church purchased the former St. Bridget Church rectory off St. Paul Boulevard last month to house the re-entry program, with hopes to begin housing women there in the new year, Rodríguez said. The property was formerly occupied by Bethany House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality for homeless women and children, she added. The purchase, along with the ministry’s recently approved non-profit status, will allow Rodríguez and her church to offer the counseling and sewing ministries in one place, she added.
Now, she begins the work of raising money and collecting donations for the furniture and other necessities to serve the re-entry and sewing ministries, she said.
Rodríguez first brought her sewing skills to Rochester 22 years ago when her family-owned factory in her native Puerto Rico was forced to close because of island politics, she explained. Upon moving here, she became certified as a social worker and worked for the Health Association, Action for a Better Community and the Sisters of Charity in Buffalo for the next 15 years, she added.
Then, Rodríguez was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and took some time off, she said. She realized she wanted to incorporate her Christianity into her counseling as she looked to the future. So, she created a ministry called Overcomers and based it on a California program to aid people recovering from substance abuse through 12-step biblical counseling sessions, Rodríguez explained. That evolved as the umbrella name for the Dorcas and re-entry components, she said.
When she created the sewing ministry, Rodríguez contacted the county’s Work Employment Program (WEP) to offer the sewing ministry as an option for clients there, she said. The name comes from a story in the Book of Acts, Rodríguez added. Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, was a disciple who helped the poor, according to www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=1904.
To fund the materials needed for sewing, Rodríguez said that she sells aprons and custom dresses sewn by the women. She also offers tailoring and keepsake teddy bears. The church’s sewing room is full of reams of cloth and evening gowns in various states of completion. Three of the sewing machines in the room were donated, while two others were purchased by herself and a church pastor. She also buys the bulk of the fabric but has begun receiving donations of that as well, Rodríguez added.
"Every penny we get, we put it back (in the program)," she said.
The program is a family operation as well. Rodríguez sews as well as oversees her seamstresses. Her husband, Luis, helps with some of the embroidery, and her daughter, Lucila Matos, assists with the teddy bears, she explained.
Programs such as Dorcas are vital to people coming out of jail, noted Sue Porter, who worked with Rodríguez several years ago when she volunteered for the Judicial Process Commission.
"We were impressed with her abilities then," added Porter, a coordinator with the commission. "Employment programs and job-training programs are desperately needed for this population of citizens. … And it’s really important for communities to have a variety of training programs so they are able to move on and become tax-paying citizens."
Rodríguez knows that if women coming out of jail can’t find work, they may turn to drugs again or other addictions, she noted.
"If they get to live in a place … and learn how to be in community, they can get better," Rodríguez remarked. "They will respect themselves more. They will value themselves more and know more how much God loves them."