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Crafters at rePurpose give new life to old clothing to benefit mission

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WATERTOWN — A group of women who attend New Life Christian Church thought there had to be a better way to raise money for their cause.

That cause, quite lofty, is found in Psalm 82:3-4 and it is prominent on the group’s website:

“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

What was once forsaken — old T-shirts and other discarded clothing — is helping the women in their mission.

The business, called rePurpose, was created in late winter. Clothing gleaned from local thrift stores is “repurposed” into fashionable scarfs, necklaces, headbands, totes and other accessories. A team of about a dozen women, some volunteers and some paid, work to transform the secondhand clothing.

“We just started this about a month ago, and it’s grown bigger than I imagined,” Jessica L. Burt, founder of rePurpose, said in mid-April.

The group’s website, designed by Mrs. Burt and launched this spring, has been busy logging orders. RePuropse is based at New Life Christian Church, 255 Gaffney Drive, in the Stateway Plaza, but is not officially affiliated with it.

Mrs. Burt, Pulaski, said that last fall she and other women at New Life started a ministry, “The Called,” to fight for their causes. The ones they feel most passionately about are human trafficking and slave labor. They hosted fundraisers, such as taking Christmas-themed portraits at church and asking for donations for the prints.

“But it’s hard to keep asking people for money,” Mrs. Burt said. “One of the girls in our group said, ‘Why don’t we just think of something we can sell?’”

Mrs. Burt, who has a bachelor’s degree in marketing with a minor in graphic design from Houghton College, thought that was a good idea. So she started brainstorming.

“People like to donate money, but they also like to shop,” Mrs. Burt said. “And people really like to shop if they know their money is going to a good cause.”

Her goal was something her team could make cheaply. That’s when the idea of using old clothing items and turning them into fashion accessories took hold.

“We get them through thrift stores or they’re donated,” Mrs. Burt said. “People are also dropping shirts off at church, which is awesome. Money isn’t going back into slave labor and the slave trade. Money is going into local outreaches, because every thrift store in Watertown has a good cause.”

For two weekends in late March, the church set up a table of rePurpose items following services at New Life. Mrs. Burt also spoke to the congregation.

“We almost sold out the first Sunday we did it,” Mrs. Burt said.

“Our church has always been very community-minded,” said the Rev. Kirk S. Gilchrist, pastor. “Any time that we can support a business that provides not only great style but also where the money goes completely to helping others, it’s exactly in accord to our vision as a church.”

The Rev. Mr. Gilchrist has a business background. He owns about a half dozen local businesses, ranging from CiCi’s Pizza and Cold Stone Creamery to New Life Media. He views them as an important way to provide income to community members and also enable him to fund orphanages worldwide.

“I look at this in the same way,” Mr. Gilchrist said of rePurpose. “When the orders come in, a lot of the work is going to be done by moms in their homes and they’ll be able to make a decent wage by doing so.”

Items sold by rePurpose range in price from $5 to $22. They are designed by members of The Called. Mrs. Burt said she has about five paid workers who are contracted to craft the items.

“We’re trying to make it so they get more than minimum wage per hour,” she said.

individual attention

When an order is received through the rePurpose website, Mrs. Burt makes out an invoice and brings it to the church, where the group has a work space set up in back of the toddler nursery. Unique items also can be made if requested through the website. A worker will pick the order up and create the item, often at home. “That is part of our vision — to allow moms to work out of their homes,” Mrs. Burt said.

RePurpose is a business, not a nonprofit group.

“The reason is because we (The Called) want to make sure the money goes where we want it to go, regardless of a board,” Mrs. Burt said.

In addition to T-shirts, rePurpose items are made from other clothing, like discarded pants. A donated leather coat could become several bracelets. Not all donated items are clothing. Old curtains could become headwear or necklaces.

Old purses that are donated have designs sketched onto them. “The purses we sell are used purses that we update using old fabric, jewelry, etc.,” Mrs. Burt said. “For example, we’ll add a vintage floral print to a plain brown purse, and maybe a vintage brooch.”

Other rePurpose items may need similar trimmings. For example, a bracelet may need some sparkly studs. But Mrs. Burt makes sure such extras are made in the U.S.

Mrs. Burt oversees quality control. She said each rePurpose crafter has her own sense of style.

“I have military wives who help me out and they come from bigger cities and know way more about fashion than I do,” Mrs. Burt said.

Most rePurpose items are for females, but the company is developing a line for men, beginning with bow ties for boys.

Growth and baseball

This summer, baseball fans in Watertown will get a sense of rePurpose fashion. Mrs. Burt said her group signed with the Watertown Rams to sell rePurpose items at home games in Rams team colors. She said half the proceeds will go to the Watertown Urban Mission and the other half to a charity that rePurpose backs.

In addition to fighting slave labor and human trafficking, mainly in Southeast Asia and India, other missions backed by rePurpose range from supporting the military to hunger relief. A full list is found on the rePurpose website.

Mrs. Burt envisions continued growth for her company.

“When I started this, I was thinking it’d be a little hobby thing and make like a couple of hundred bucks maybe,” she said. “It’s already grown more than I planned. We can do so much more with all the needs we want to help out with, and then some.”

As rePurpose continues to grow, Mrs. Burt hopes to move it out of the church’s toddler nursery.

“My dream is to have an actual storefront with offices in the back,” she said.

And she has loftier goals for rePurpose.

“I would love us to be a national name and to get this across the U.S.,” she said. “I’m dreaming big. The more money, the more lives we can touch.”

Last week, that dream came closer to reality. Mrs. Burt was contacted by the Dream Center, a mission in Los Angeles that operates a church called Angelus Temple. The center is interested in selling rePurpose items. The Dream Center has a mission similar to rePurpose’s: rescuing people out of poverty, homelessness, addictions and human trafficking.

“I think our long-term goal would be to work with some of the ministries of the Dream Center,” said Mrs. Burt, who plans to travel to Los Angeles to meet with center officials later this year.

“We’re going to be very busy this summer,” Mrs. Burt said Monday. “I gotta get more girls on board!”


The details
MISSION: Based on three major principles: to donate profits locally and internationally, to raise awareness of the group’s causes and to make a conscious effort to use materials that don’t support slave labor.
ON THE WEB: Repurposeaccessories.big cartel.com/
OF NOTE: RePurpose welcomes donations of used clothing to help its mission. Founder Jessica L. Burt says items can be dropped off at New Life Christian Church, 255 Gaffney Drive (Stateway Plaza), during church business hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
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