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OMore fashion project strengthens the fabric of lives in Haiti

An iron gate with armed guards on both sides – a hard line separating poverty and abundance in Nicaragua – surrounded the comfortable, upper-socioeconomic childhood home of real estate agent-turned philanthropist Martha Montiel-Lewis of Hendersonville, Tenn.

Once her foot met the pavement when the iron gate clanked behind her, she met the face of poverty every day as a child growing up in the Latin American country. The sights of children begging for money, young girls compromised and families barely able to sustain themselves replayed in Montiel-Lewis’ mind throughout her life.

Martha Montiel-Lewis
(Photos by Kerri Bartlett)

“There is no middle class in Nicaragua. There is either the ‘haves’ or the ‘have nots,’” she said. “Growing up, I was struck at how some people had so little while others were blessed with an abundance – based purely on the family and community where they were born.

“It's one of those fundamental concepts of fairness and justice that always tore at my conscience. Those experiences inspired me to start We Are DAR.”

We Are DAR – “dar” means “to give” in Spanish – is a nonprofit clothing consignment supplier that Montiel-Lewis founded in 2011, which provides apparel for those in need in Latin America.

However, when her church visited Haiti last year, Montiel-Lewis conceived the idea to expand her nonprofit organization to empower impoverished women of this Caribbean country in a sustainable way – quite possibly changing the fabric of their lives forever with the creative help of seven fashion design students at O’More College of Design.

Striking Montiel-Lewis’ philanthropic bone, she saw the desperate need for not only food and goods in Haiti but for a sustainable career and lifestyle for Haitian women and their families. A burst of inspiration hit her to create a children’s clothing line – aDARable – that would provide the women of the village of Ti Bouk, Haiti, with long-term reliable income. Like much of Haiti, Ti Bouk is impoverished, and has no middle class, no running water and no electricity.

“I had the idea, but I knew nothing about making clothes or starting a clothing line,” she said. 

Despite the obstacles, she propelled her idea forward.

Alisha Murphy, Martha Montiel-Lewis, Mary Alden Mills, Maarika Mann, Sophie Franken, Crista Hooven, Ashley Selberg, Holly Tatterson, Annette Medcalf

“When you are so passionate about something and start working towards a goal, it’s amazing how things start working out,” she said. “If you know in your gut you are supposed to do something, follow it.”

Montiel-Lewis partnered with Jamie Atlas, Fashion Design Department chair and Annette Medcalf, an adjunct professor and designer of 23 years.

“This has been a wonderful project that has impacted our students by giving them the opportunity to work as a team on something bigger than themselves, impacting the local community and women as far away as Haiti,” Medcalf said.

The women put the idea in motion by assigning the task of designing a girl’s clothing line to a fashion design class, “Designing for a Cause,” comprised of seven innovative students at O’More. The student-designers retained the responsibility of creating and designing the entire, aDARable, clothing line from conceptual start to concrete finish, eventually to be handed over to Haitian women for manufacturing.

Montiel-Lewis traveled to the remote Haitian village, absent of electricity and running water, in February to help train women in sewing, which will ultimately provide jobs for 10 Haitian women – increasing their families’ income from about $200 a year to about $140 a month.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to empower women by teaching them a skill and helping them to provide for their families, which changes their entire life,” Montiel-Lewis said.

A generator, funded through donations, will provide a power source for electric sewing machines, which the organization still needs more of for the manufacturing process. Donations to We Are DAR have contributed such items as electric sewing machines and a gas-powered generator that have made the project possible.

The Haitian women will be responsible for manufacturing the 100 percent fair trade aDARables girls clothing line to be sold in stores in Middle Tennessee.

Fittingly, the aDARable line parallels Montiel-Lewis’ own childhood experiences based on the concept of a modern-day nomad that capitalizes on childhood wonder and exploration, as presented at the clothing line’s preview showing April 25 at O’More.

“The term alludes to a child with an independent, innovative spirit who enjoys exploring nature, technology and her world,” said Maarika Mann, fashion-design student and project member.

Montiel-Lewis said that the students captured the spirit and concept of her own childhood. Through her travels as a child growing up in a military family, she experienced different sights, peoples and cultures. Native Nicaraguans, her parents moved to the U.S. where her father joined the U.S. military, which facilitated a childhood of world travel for Montiel-Lewis.

“My parents were nomads who wanted to show us the world, which I am very thankful for,” she said. “From a young age, I knew that I wanted to do something to help others and make a difference.”

The colorful, playful aDARables clothing line – made with local fabric textile designs by Anna Maria Horner – will premiere at the Eloise Fashion Show Friday, May 10 at 8 p.m. in Liberty Hall at The Factory at Franklin. To donate to the project or to purchase tickets to the fashion show,

Posted on: 5/1/2013


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