Old sewing machines help restore self-esteem in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam

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Updated 13 March 2017, 19:20 AEDT By Lauren Beldi

Two years on from Cyclone Pam, a different type of disaster relief has brought pride and income to women in Vanuatu through a program that helps them sell high-quality products to tourists.

When Cyclone Pam lashed Vanuatu two years ago, aid to the island nation came in all shapes and sizes: food, tents, clothes, and cash.

But Caroline Mason saw the need for quilts.

"I started seeing it on television and the news, people lying on the ground with just pieces of tin over them, and I just thought, 'I wonder if I can do something,'" she said.

The grandmother from New Zealand started by collecting donations from her local quilt club, and asking friends to sew some simple bed covers.

But once she discovered how easy it was, she broadened her scope, and contacted all the clubs she could find across the country to ask for donations.

"To cut a long story short, I had 741 quilts here at the house within about three weeks," Ms Mason said.

Wanting to make sure they reached their destination safely, Ms Mason accompanied the quilts to Vanuatu on a cruise ship, where one of the staff members asked her to visit their village.

It was there that she saw how a local woman's sewing machine had been destroyed during the cyclone.

"I guess I then went home and thought, 'well OK, you did your bit', but I kept seeing an image of this rusty, filthy sewing machine, a ruined sewing machine, and I thought … maybe some women have got sewing machines in their cupboards that they're not using," she said.

Old sewing machines get new life

After taking out an ad in her local newspaper, Ms Mason travelled back to Vanuatu with the first load of 14 second-hand sewing machines to give to local women.

One of those women was Janet Kaltovei, who had lost her sewing machine and source of income in the cyclone.

She attended the first workshop that Ms Mason held, where she taught the women how to use their new machines.

"It gives me [good] self-esteem because … when the product is finished with island fabric it's so brilliant. It's so nice and it's quality," Ms Kaltovei said.

Ms Mason now makes regular trips to Port Vila, enlisting the help of local women to run workshops and distribute the donations of fabric and sewing supplies she has collected in New Zealand through her Facebook page, called Threads Across the Pacific.

She has delivered 100 old sewing machines and has received enough donated money to buy 30 new machines at a discounted rate.

The workshops focus on teaching the skills needed to make high-quality products that can be sold to tourists.

Six women who attended the classes have since signed up for a small business training course with the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce.

Others have gone on to sell their products in the market — including a group of several women who pooled their resources and sold more than $1,500 worth of goods.

"They planned out that they would take a third for repairing their church roof, which was ruined in the cyclone, a third to buy themselves more fabric and supplies, and a third they'd divide up and take home for their efforts," Ms Mason said.

The ability to sell their creations to tourists and neighbours has helped women to raise the money to send their children to school, Ms Mason said.

"Even the primary school children, some can't get to school because they don't have sufficient money for the fees. To get to stay on beyond 11 years [and go] to high school is very expensive by local standards," she said.

'There's a lot of happiness and pride'

Janet Kaltovei has been making laundry bags for a local resort and is now a tutor at the workshops.

"I feel great helping other women to sew, because we have ladies who have come to the workshops who can't even sew, even hand sewing, so I feel good when I help them to learn," she said.

"We have people who bring their grandchildren or their children into the workshop and put a dress on and we all give them a big round of applause," Ms Mason said.

"There's a lot of happiness and pride in that."

Ms Mason will return to Vanuatu in May with a group of volunteers to help run more workshops and distribute supplies.

This time her plans include visiting a school to replace the two sewing machines that were destroyed during cyclone Pam.

She said the sewing class of about 90 girls had been without any sewing machines ever since.

"There are new developments happening all the time," Ms Mason said.

"It has kind of grown tentacles of different things happening all over the place."

Ms Mason said she had no particular connection to Vanuatu when she began her call for donations two years ago, but she felt compelled to help.

"This is in the Pacific and the Pacific is our neighbour, they're our neighbours who are a lot worse off than we are," she said.

"I guess it was just right time, right place, it just came along and has become a very big thing in my life now."

Australian Broadcasting Corporation