February 13, 2020 at 11:43 PM EST - Updated February 14 at 12:04 AM
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - On Thursday, a woman with roots in Charlottesville took her fight to help the homeless community to the global stage. Gwen Cassady spoke at the first-ever United Nations dialogue on the global homelessness pandemic.
Cassady found herself homeless four times in her life. Now she holds two degrees from the University of Virginia and is enrolled in a graduate program at Harvard. Now she's working to help others get off the streets - and into their own homes.
"When you see a homeless person, don't treat them like stranger, treat them like a family member or a friend, treat them like the human being they are, give them respect, dignity and empathy, don't just walk away and walk on by, if you can't afford to give them spare change or a dollar or you know food or a bottle of water, give them a smile instead,” Cassady said.
Cassady says her dream is to help the homeless community by creating a “small home neighborhood” in Albemarle County, where each home costs less than $10,000 to build.
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2/12/20 at 6:00 AM
Gwen Cassady has lived a lot more life than could fit into a half-page newspaper profile. She’s been homeless four times, and spent a period living out of an office on the Downtown Mall. She’s been to 64 countries, as well as a royal Saudi compound, earned two degrees from UVA, and is currently enrolled in a Harvard graduate program. Next week, she’ll speak about her experience with homelessness in front of the United Nations as part of the organization’s Civil Society Forum.
Through all those twists and turns, Cassady’s entrepreneurial spirit hasn’t wavered. She’s got a studio now, a small room tucked in the side of a warehouse in Woolen Mills, jammed with boxes overflowing with fabrics and beads. She has a dozen projects in the works, everything from a “net-positive, off-grid, small-home community” in Greene County to a jewelry business that sends 100 percent of profits to victims of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Her latest endeavor is Eco Chic Boutique, a clothing shop and tailoring service that Cassady coordinates with local refugees. They sell jeans, bridesmaid dresses, and other custom-fit apparel.
She’s also become a tireless advocate for homelessness awareness in Charlottesville, where our housing crisis has exacerbated an already difficult situation. Cassady is working on three documentaries about homelessness, and will premiere one of them at the UN. We caught up with her ahead of her speech on February 13.
C-VILLE: What’s the movie about?
GC: We focus on the global pandemic of homelessness, but our primary focus is on Charlottesville. We interview a lot of really awesome people, amazing people who are currently homeless, people who are formerly homeless.
What support was most valuable to you during your periods of homelessness?
I found that in Charlottesville, when I had too much pride to ask my closest friends for help and assistance, my homeless friends always looked out for me. My 35th birthday, I will never forget…They were pooling all their money from food stamps and from SNAP benefits, which I was on too, just so I could have a nice steak dinner on my birthday. I remember exactly where we were standing, right outside the library.
How have you managed to survive in so many different environments?
I’ve always been able to blend in to any environment because I’ve always treated everyone the same.
You’ve been knocked down plenty of times, but you always get back up. Where does that resilience come from?
My daily driving forces are my friends who are currently homeless. Like Ricky on the Downtown Mall. Chris, in D.C., who was lit on fire by rich white kids. Understanding the systemic issues, I just want to make a difference.
What can we as individuals do to help?
My whole speech [at the UN] is about how the kindness of strangers reinstated my faith in humanity when I was homeless here on the streets of Charlottesville…You offer random acts of kindness. You do what you can do.
How does it feel to be speaking at the UN, after all you’ve been through?
It’s surreal beyond words. I still can’t wrap my head around it. I will never be able to, fully, even while I’m speaking.
Education: UVA economics BA ’97, UVA education MA ’14, Harvard sustainability masters in progress
If you could pass any law what would it be: Removing the statute of limitations on sexual assault.
Priority for change in Charlottesville: Building more affordable housing.
Meaningful quotation: “The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty of all.” —Mother Teresa
November 20, 2018
This is Saleha Akhbari’s story and it leads, in a surprising way, to this year’s “Cyber Monday,” the massive online holiday shopping spree that explodes the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Akhbari’s family relocated to Charlottesville from Kabul, Afghanistan, about a year and a half ago to escape the violence in their war-torn homeland.
Choosing to leave behind family and friends was a difficult, but necessary, choice. Saleha’s husband Mohammad had worked as a reporter for NATO troops based in the country, and it had become clear his position was placing him and his family in danger. The Akhbari family applied to the United States for refuge, arrived in the U.S. via Dulles Airport, and swiftly settled in Charlottesville.
The International Rescue Committee helped resettle the family in an enclave off of Hydraulic Road nicknamed “Baby ’Bul,” because it is home to several Kabul natives.
Finding work to support their family has posed a challenge. Mohammad suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a byproduct of living and working in Afghanistan, which is riven with violence sown by the Taliban and the Islamic State. When he can, he drives for Uber and Lyft, a far cry from the professional work he carried out in Kabul.
In addition to caring for her six children, Saleha has found another way to contribute to the household. She has returned to her expertise as a tailor and is now part of an endeavor called The Super Sewing Shop.
She is one of about a dozen Afghan women who are working with the outfit, which was launched by Gwendolyn Cassady, a community activist who holds two degrees from the University of Virginia.
The idea is simple. Cassady takes donations of sewing supplies, fabrics and clothing and distributes them among the women. They, in turn, return to their homes and “up-cycle” the pieces, embellishing things like jeans and sweaters with tassels and lace trim.
The women are hoping Cyber Monday will juice their sales and help them contribute to household costs like food and rent.
The Super Sewing Shop
The Afghan women’s touchpoint with Cassady is at a commercial space the UVA alumna rents in the Woolen Mills area of Charlottesville. The room is packed floor to ceiling with containers of donated clothing, fabric and thread, the first donation of which came from the Earlysville Exchange thrift store in April.
On Nov. 12, Cassady invited the sewers to choose from among hundreds of fabric swatches recently donated to The Super Sewing Shop by Maria Vazguez-Amaral, the director of operations for the Medical Simulation Center in UVA’s School of Medicine. The colorful choices ranged from beautiful toile cotton pieces to intricate, deeply hued wool samples.
The enterprise launched last April by chance. That spring, Cassady had decided to donate some huge rolls of fabric and a closet full of clothes that no longer fit to some local Afghan women she’d learned about from a friend.
Cassady, who earned a degree in economics from UVA in 1997 and a master’s in education (with a specialty in curriculum and instruction) in 2014, invited what she thought would be three women to come to her office space.
“I opened up my doors and there were dozens of women and their families, their children, their husbands, who showed up at my little, tiny commercial facility in downtown Charlottesville,” she said. (Cassady, who also tutors Chinese students online, rents the space because she does not have a good internet connection at home.)
Cassady had planned to personally up-cycle her clothes. “Given what’s happening to our environment, I wanted to really start making a difference,” she said, adding, “there are 9 to 14 trillion tons of clothing and apparel deposited into landfills every year.”
Looking at the crowd that had assembled in front of her office, Cassady saw a skilled crew ready and willing to join in her effort. “I was giving clothes so they could earn money, so they would have income, because many of these women, they are the sole source of income right now,” she said.
The Super Sewing Shop was born.
The Super Sewing Shop accomplishes several things. It eases clothing waste, supports local refugee families by helping them support themselves. And it offers this: “I want it to be the first, all-Muslim-female, Sharia law-based business in Central Virginia, if not the state of Virginia and quite possibly, America,” Cassady said. (As a fourth-year student in 1996, she wrote her thesis on Sharia banking. Koranic law forbids paying or receiving interest. “I will never forget, I had Professor Ken Elzinga as my adviser and his notes in the margin saying ‘fascinating topic.’”)
Gwendolyn Cassady was homeless as a teen and a young adult, one of the reasons she says she wants to help refugees.
“We do ready-to-wear apparel art,” she said. “All of the women were either seamstresses or tailors in their native Afghanistan villages. They are all Special Immigration Visa refugees,” who acted as interpreters or were medical personnel who facilitated American military needs.
In August and September, Cassady and members of The Super Sewing Shop hosted a pop-up shop at the Shops at Stonefield called “Eco Chic Boutique.” Now, just in time for Cyber Monday, many of the 950-plus pieces the women have created will be uploaded online ready for sale.
And there is more to come. “The game plan is, by the end of the first quarter of 2019, the women will be their own independent business,” Cassady said. “They will be operating as independent contractors, operating and utilizing their own business. That way people who, say, purchased a pair of jeans from a particular artisan can continue to communicate and purchase from that particular artisan.”
Sitting in her comfortable living room recently after serving hot green tea, nuts and dried fruit, Saleha explained why she has stepped up to succeed Cassady as the leader of The Super Sewing Shop. Speaking through an interpreter, who also happens to be her brother-in-law, she said, “I am a tailor. It is my position. I know about everything, the sewing, the designing. I can make any kind of tailored thing,” she said.
By Jack Pitcher firstname.lastname@example.org | Aug 29, 2018
A University of Virginia alumna is helping refugees from Afghanistan find work in Charlottesville.
Gwen Cassady, who got her undergrad and graduate degrees at UVa and is a veteran of nonprofit work, founded the Super Sewing Shop in April. The shop employees are refugees who are in the U.S. on special immigrant visas.
At the Super Sewing Shop, 12 Afghani refugee seamstresses make clothing, jewelry and accessories, which are sold online. They make $15 to $40 per hour, depending on skill level.
The apparel is now also on sale through Sept. 30 at a pop-up store at the Shops at Stonefield called EcoChic.Boutique. The shop derives its name from the sustainable textiles the seamstresses use for the clothing. The business currently offers 962 unique items.
Sisters Palwasha Lutfe and Saleha Akbare came to the U.S. a year ago from Kabul, Afghanistan. Both were unable to find employment until hearing about the sewing shop. They’ve been enjoying the work ever since.
“My favorite part is getting to design custom clothing,” Lutfe said through an interpreter.
Cassady had been homeless earlier in her life, which gives her a special appreciation for helping refugees.
“I always knew one day I would try and return the favor and warm hospitality provided to me during some of my darkest days,” Cassady said.
The goal of Super Sewing Shop is to become profitable while teaching the refugees how to run a small business, eventually having the refugees take control.
Cassady is also trying to help some local high school students get started with an effort to aid refugees.
Albemarle High School juniors Dominic Ruiz and Analie Grosch are working to start a new club: an AHS chapter of Amnesty International, a nonpolitical human rights advocacy organization.
Their first goal after forming the club is to gather the signatures from fellow students necessary to pass an honorary resolution that would make Albemarle High School an “Amnesty Zone” where refugees are publically welcome and supported.
Cassady is donating 50 percent of the proceeds from this weekend’s sale at the pop-up shop to help Ruiz and Grosch start their club.
“We were super excited to partner with the sewing shop because of their work with refugees,” Grosch said. “Starting this club at AHS is a great opportunity to make more refugees feel welcome.”
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