Quilts for Empowerment program helps support Kenyan women who are the victims of abuse

One of the many quilts that will be on display and for sale at a fundraising event for Quilts for Empowerment on Jan. 21.

What is the connection between a small art gallery in Aurora and a not-for-profit program that improves the lives of impoverished at-risk women in Kenya?

At first glance, nothing. But for Susan Black, owner of Black Star Watercolor Art Gallery, and Sherwood's Mary Ann McCammom, founder of Quilts for Empowerment, the answer lies in the power of individual expression in art.

"My gallery is all about original and unique art — primarily watercolor paintings by local artists, but other forms as well," said Black. "Mary Ann's program teaches the art form of quilting to individual Kenyan women who have survived obstetric fistula, sexual assault and other trauma. Not only does quilting help them recover, it gives them a path toward economic independence." Quilts for Empowerment helps transition abused Kenyan women into a healthier enviroment through quilt projects.

Black and McCammom met in 2016 when Black chaired the annual quilt show at the Aurora Colony Museum and invited the Coffee Creek Quilters, a volunteer program at the women's correctional facility in Wilsonville, to participate.

"Mary Ann has taught quilting at Coffee Creek for 12 years," said Black. "As we got to know each other, she told me about the new program she had started the year before to teach quilting to impoverished women and girls in Kenya. Many of the women and girls are survivors of obstetric fistula and sexual assault. I was floored by what Mary Ann told me."

McCammon picked up the story. "These women and girls have suffered terrible trauma and abuse. They are shunned and stigmatized," she said. "They have no education or training, and they live in deep poverty. Their prospects are truly bleak. The idea of Quilts for Empowerment (QFE) is that, by learning how to quilt and then being paid by QFE for their products, the women and girls can attain skills and self-confidence and begin to be economically independent."

Improving the health of marginalized women has been the focus of McCammom's life and career. She holds Bachelor of Science and doctorate degrees in nursing and is a retired professor of nursing at Oregon Health & Science University. A life-long quilter, she teaches the art form not only at Coffee Creek but also in a rural Mexican village. Meeting someone from the Fistula Foundation in 2015 led her to Kenya, one of many countries in sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia where the devastating health condition is rife.

"In just a couple of years, QFE has worked with many survivors who have had surgery to begin to heal their physical injuries. But full recovery is much more complex, and the simple art of

quilting is part of it," said McCammom.

Many of QFE's women and girls didn't even know how to draw, much less sew by hand. But they quickly learned how to depict what was important to them — their huts, their families, corn, chickens, nature, images of their everyday lives — to create their own "story quilts." Each quilt is unique and contains a message from the individual quilter about the story being told, as well as a photo and story about the quilter.

After a fundraising show and sale on Jan. 21, Black Star Watercolor will permanently stock a selection of QFE's story quilts, with 100 percent of the price of each quilt going directly back to the women and the program in Kenya.

"How can I resist these quilts? They are as beautiful and as unique as any watercolor painting," said Black. "I believe in the power of the individual and the power of art to change lives. Mary Ann, Quilts for Empowerment and the Kenyan women are living out that belief. I want to do what I can for them."

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Meet Mary Ann McCammom

Meet Mary Ann McCammom and hear the compelling stories of Quilts for Empowerment and the individual women, and take the opportunity to purchase the story quilts that they have made.

Event: Quilt for Empowerment Fundraising Show and Sale

Where: Black Star Watercolor Art Gallery, 21680 Main St., Aurora.

When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21.

The event is free and all are welcome.

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