Sixteen years ago, two Dunedin newlyweds departed on their honeymoon to Kenya. However, their purpose was not to have a romantic getaway. • Al Barrett and his wife, Gail, were on a mission. They wanted to help the poverty-stricken people of Kenya, but they weren't sure how. • On their connecting flight to the African nation, a passenger named Paul Geller sat between them. Geller, a lawyer from Ohio, was irritated — he had overslept and missed his morning flight.
However, as he listened to the Barretts talk about their ambition to help others, he was impressed. He handed them $50 and said, "Put this where it will sow into the kingdom of God."
When the couple arrived in Kenya, they had no knowledge of the Swahili language; all they had were directions, clothes and, luckily, a driver who was their translator.
They visited the Chagga Tribe near Mount Kilimanjaro. Adorned in colorful garb, the natives told the Barretts that two of their sewing machines were stolen and they had no income to replace them.
It seemed meant to be when Al remembered the lawyer's cash in his pocket. He handed it to them.
And the first thread was woven.
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The Barretts' sewing ministry, Threads of Hope, has flourished since they created it in 1998. The ministry has distributed more than 15,000 sewing machines across the globe, including Honduras, India and the Dominican Republic.
Al, 71, focuses on teaching sewing to women and orphans, who live far from any access to education. He said sewing is a skill that can lead to jobs.
"A sewing machine can feed a family. In the city, there are companies that hire people to sew," Al said. "You plant a seed like that, it grows and you water it. I felt compelled to keep going back and watering these seeds."
Gail, 68, volunteers in Kenya at the Nairobi Youth for Christ Pregnancy Center.
A handful of volunteers join them on each trip to help out.
They have made 16 trips to Kenya.
In December, the couple expects to begin their first building project. A sewing center will be built outside of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, a five-hour drive from a tourist hot spot, the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
"It's right on a main road. It's a strategic location that will help for this effort to be sustainable," Al said. "Drivers can stop with their tourists. Women and widows can come together to do sewing and make a living, and also have a place where tourists can buy their goods."
The Barretts hope to raise $25,000 for the center, to purchase and ship items like tables, chairs, solar panels and wind generators to power electric sewing machines. Donations can be made through their website.
"These women who come and get training (at the center) … can get a machine and take it back to their village," Al said. "Some will stay for several days or even weeks."
The sewing center is a result of "years and years of building relationships," Al said. "It's pretty exciting."
The Barretts plan to stay in Kenya to build the one-room facility out of stones. They also will create a fish farm at the site, so locals can learn a new avenue of farming.
Geneva Ware, 60, of Clearwater traveled with the ministry in 2005. She said it wasn't difficult to teach the women how to sew.
"They had walked 10 miles out of the mountains to come and see us," she said. "We had gone to a sewing class before we went to Kenya so that we could show them exactly what we were doing. They were very smart. They caught on right away."
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Al and Gail first met at Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater on Dec. 20, 1994. Both had been previously married, but had been divorced for years. They were married in 1996. As it turned out, the second time was the charm.
They are parents — two sons from Gail's first marriage and two daughters from Al's first marriage — and are grandparents of five children.
Gail works at New Life Solutions, a pregnancy mission center, while Al has owned the Dunedin Canvas Shop for about two decades. The shop became their mission headquarters.
They met their most important Kenyan connection at Countryside Christian Center. Sixteen years ago, an African churchgoer Gail had never met hugged her after a service.
"Where do you know Gail from?" Al asked the woman.
She replied: "I just saw God in her face."
"We knew we were going to Kenya for our honeymoon mission trip," Gail said. "I was praying we would meet someone we knew in Nairobi to help us. I can't explain it. It was like a divine appointment."
It turned out the woman's cousin lived in Nairobi. He has allowed the Barretts to stay at his home to rest after they arrive and before they leave the country.
Cheryl Rodriguez, director of the Institute on Black Life at the University of South Florida, said Africans living in poor conditions usually need guidance in finding resources.
"Basically, he's going somewhere where they need a lot of assistance," she said of Al.
The women who learn to sew can sell the clothing and bags they create, Rodriguez said.
"It's still a hard life and they don't always make a tremendous amount of money," Rodriguez said. "Sometimes, it's the only money that they have."
Al said he just wants to make their lives a little bit easier.
"My heart goes out to them," he said.
Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.