Amy Woodell entered the University of South Carolina (USC) hoping to complete a degree in fashion marketing and move to New York City. She dreamed of merchandising with Nordstrom, producing shows with IMG and NY Fashion Week, doing public relations for a fashion house, or working for Chicago Magazine.
Woodell, who grew up in Cary, N.C., took sewing courses in high school and enjoyed using her hands to make things that were both useful and beautiful.
"Sewing has a special place in my heart," she said. "There's something so special about creativity, beauty expressed through textiles worldwide, and a universal appreciation of those things."
When Woodell, 22, graduated in May, she entered the fashion world, just like she'd always dreamed of doing, but in a much different way than she expected. A few weeks after picking up her diploma, Woodell flew to Zambia to start Clothed in Hope (CiH), a privately-funded charity that will teach women to sew. Their new skill will allow them to create and sell clothing to help support their families.
On July 30, Woodell held her first sewing class for six women. They started by making fabric rosettes. But a little more than two weeks later, the women were making bracelets and headbands ready to sell. In a few months, Woodell hopes to have them stitching their own clothing designs. The items they create will provide income that empowers them with independence.
"The CiH women were doing, and are still doing, a variety of things to bring in income, but [they] see our income-generating projects as an opportunity to not just survive but to thrive," Woodell said. "They're excited for things to get better, allowing for sustainable changes in their families and their community."
Before Woodell realized she could use fashion to help others, she was just a girl who loved clothes, said her mother, Kathy Woodell: "She's always been interested in fashion. She had clothes everywhere [at home] and loves shopping…She was up on all the latest trends."
But during the summer of 2010, before her junior year of college, Woodell took a six-week mission trip to Zambia. She witnessed devastating poverty and need in a place with a high rate of HIV/Aids infections. She watched Zambians survive on a week-by-week basis, doing whatever odd-jobs they could find to support their families.
"I had seen downtowns of major cities, projects and such, but never before had I been exposed to poverty in a gripping and painful way," she said. "Life here is difficult."
Even after she returned to USC in the fall, Woodell never stopped thinking about Zambia. Her time in the country left its mark, and despite the support of friends and family, she felt alone. No one she told about her experiences really understood the stories or her heartbreak over what she had seen. She wrestled with what she was supposed to take away from the trip. She thought she knew what she wanted from life, but going to Africa gave her a new passion and a new perspective on the importance of her own plans.
"How do you go to New York selling three-million-dollar handbags when you've seen women struggling to feed their families," Kathy Woodell said of her daughter's new direction.
Clothed in Hope is the organization that came from Woodell's desire to help Zambian women. As Woodell says He has done all through her life, God opened doors for the organization's formation and she simply stepped through. After she graduated in May, she headed back to Zambia to set up the organization in Lusaka, the nation's capitol and largest city. Although Woodell's immediate goal is to teach women to sew, CiH's long-term goal is to educate women in disease prevention and financial responsibility. As they learn how to use a needle and thread, Woodell also teaches the women about profit, marketing and sales strategies.
While hardship is a familiar enemy to those who live in Lusaka's Ng'ombe compound--many of the women are widows--Woodell sees God working through them to teach her that even in the hardest places there is no need for despair.
"Convenience doesn't fuel each day but rather relationships do," she said. "For so much that was scarring in terms of poverty, disease and hardship, there was just as much that expanded my idea of joy and hope through relationships."
Even with her passion for her young organization, Woodell feels she is just a steward of a God-made project. God is using her passions for much more than she ever imagined. Woodell plans to stay in Lusaka until mid-October, but whether she will continue her work for the women of Zambia in the U.S. or in Africa will depend on where she can be of most use. Woodell's future may be unclear, but she knows who is writing her life.
"Each day is a decision to walk in [God's] light, to trust Him in the known and unknown, and to accept the extravagant love He has for me," she said. "That's it. My story just happens to be happening in Zambia right now."