Starting over, and building friendships, with needles and thread

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ST. PETERSBURG

Theresa Carvell was running a pillowcase under the punching needle of a sewing machine when another woman sat down next to her.

"It’s Elsa?" Carvell asked.

"Elsie. But you can call me Elsa," Elsie Flores said.

"No, I like to remember the right name," Carvell said.

They focused in on their pillowcases. Flores, 44, pressed on the pedal under the table with her black ankle boot. Carvell, 56, measured her seams, with blistered fingers, using a miniature tape measure.

Flores asked Carvell where she had learned to sew.

"In jail," Carvell said.

Flores paused her machine and turned to listen.

Like many in the art studio that morning, the women started as strangers. Some had fled abusive partners, others were homeless or recovering addicts. Now, they were working for the Answered Prayers Project.

The St. Petersburg charity began a decade ago with clay but recently grew to include pillows as part of the Welcome Home program, said founder Elizabeth Bunbury. The organization pays women $10 an hour to sew the pillows, which Answered Prayers sells for $35.

Last week was the first time all the women came together from groups including CASA, a domestic violence refuge; Pinellas Hope, a homeless shelter; and Enterprising Latinas, a Wimauma-based group that helps Hispanic women like Flores start businesses.

Carvell landed in the studio through the Red Tent Women’s Initiative, a group that teaches inmates how to make marketable art.

A year and change out of jail, she had mastered pillowmaking, measuring each seam to a fraction of an inch.

"It’s about precision," she said.

• • •

Carvell moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1994, leaving behind three failed marriages and a daughter in Nashville to reinvent herself.

Within a month, a bouncer at a nightclub offered her cocaine. On the way to breakfast after last call, an officer pulled them over, dumped her purse and found a straw with residue.

"It started out that minor," she remembered.

In jail, she met a woman with a spare room. Carvell called her when she got out, not knowing the woman smoked crack cocaine. Soon, Carvell did, too.

The addiction drove her to seedy motels, to work at escort services, to banks disguised as the person whose ID she’d stolen that week. She made her way down to Key West, where she fell in love with a relapsed heroin addict, and later up to St. Petersburg. She loved water, and Pinellas jutted with promise.

It would be 15 years before she lived up to her potential. Serving a six-month stint at the Pinellas County Jail last year, Carvell found Red Tent.

As counselors asked pointed questions to get to the bottom of her addiction, she sewed and sewed, specializing in tote bags.

She brought 10 with her on Tuesday, patterned with giraffes, floral print, pink plaid.

Flores had seen them when she came in, but when she learned where they came from, she threw her arms around Carvell.

"Guerrera," Flores said to describe her new friend. Warrior.

She was in awe of Carvell’s journey, so different from her own.

• • •

Flores arrived in the St. Petersburg area from Puerto Rico in 2014 after her husband, a surgical assistant, was transferred. They left behind family, friends and her job working for the government in information systems.

That first year, she struggled to communicate in a new language and felt isolated. She worked in a before- and after-school program at the charter school her two children attended, but then a deal for a townhouse fell through, and the family moved again.

They landed in Ruskin, where the houses were cheaper, but there was less to do. Finding a job without speaking fluent English proved difficult.

Flores searched online, desperate for social support, and found Enterprising Latinas. She joined in September and took up needle and thread in a weekly sewing circle the next month.

"When we get there, we forget about everything outside," said Maggie Pagan, a friend from the group who helps interpret for Flores.

The two women hope to start a sewing business someday.

• • •

Punch punch punch punch.

Flores and Carvell were focused again on their pillowcases. Chatter wafted from across the room, where some of the two dozen women painted clay crosses. Nearby, two women plotted their escapes from a domestic violence shelter.

Flores needed help loading the bobbin, or the cylinder of thread, into the machine, so Carvell leaned over to show her.

It wasn’t long before Flores finished her first pillowcase. She turned it right-side out, dancing around the room as she hugged it to her stomach.

"Look at what I made!" she said.

She pulled Carvell out of her chair, and they held up their pillowcases together.

"Bienvenido a Casa" was splashed across Flores’ in curly blue letters.

In her own language, Carvell’s had the same message.

"Welcome Home."

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn

           
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