A new vocational center in Uganda is complete. photo provided
A new vocational center in Uganda is complete. photo provided

"Can you imagine trying to build a building in Africa by email?" Janet Storton asks rhetorically. She's referring to the challenge that commanded her focus for much of the past year: construction of a new vocational center for the Sisters of the Heart quilting project, within a strict time frame dictated by the American Embassy in Uganda.

Storton was anxious to see the outcome - even as her plane landed recently in the capitol city of Kampala and she made her way up the now-familiar red roads to the rural mountainside village of Kapchorwa. To her relief and to her delight, she found the generously sized natural stone building - uncommonly attractive for the region - was complete to her specifications.

And the joyful ladies of Sisters of the Heart stood awaiting her arrival, eager to move in and get back to business.

"I knew we could build something that would give the women a sense of pride. Not only a building, but a beautiful building that would last for years and years," says Storton. "We wanted the embassy to be really proud of it. The embassy loves Sisters of the Heart."

In late 2009, Storton scored the largest grant allocated by the embassy, $25,000, to develop a sustainable training center for a group of women who have gained the attention and admiration of even the Ugandan president. By March 2010, Storton was back on site with a local Ugandan contractor, reviewing the plans which architect Chris Mayes of Sisters designed and donated.

Her Kapchorwan crew was unaccustomed to collaborating with a woman on a construction project.

"They were surprised," says Storton, who owned and operated an interior design firm in Sisters for many years. Women in rural Uganda are typically uneducated; their work is limited to growing crops and raising animals.

"I taught them (the builders) a new word: environmentally friendly," she says. "We used indigenous stone they could quarry right out of their hillside."

Most structures in Kapchorwa are crafted from sticks and mud, says Storton, and they "start crumbling before they're even complete."

She returned in September to find the building only half-done, and the project was up against a December 1 completion deadline to receive the full grant.

On that trip, Storton demonstrated for the builders how to brush the mortar joints "so the rocks had a beautiful appearance - so you could actually see the stones. They didn't know; they would have left them smeared with mud or plaster," she says.

Remarkably, construction was completed in time to satisfy the grant requirement. The new building allows ample room for the Subine craftswomen Storton trained - now skilled quilt-makers in their own right - to produce one-of-a-kind African quilts and other fabric art projects for their growing clientele. Many of the quilts are commissioned by Sisters residents as gifts for the children they sponsor in Kapchorwa.

The women's former workspace was "dark, dingy and small," says Storton. "Now there's so much natural light coming from the windows." And there's room to grow.

The Sisters of the Heart project had simple roots. In 2007, Storton followed up on an invitation to teach some African women, ravenous for a creative outlet, to quilt. What emerged was a self-sustaining charitable foundation which now offers women - many of them widows - the chance to learn a trade, and which pours resources back into the community through micro-loans and donations.

"These women are so revered because of the work they're doing," says Storton. "They're out looking for the neediest of the needy in the village to help. If you can imagine most of them live on fifty cents a day and now there is $4,000 in their foundation.

"Recently they saved a woman's life - paid for the breast surgery she needed."

Their mission statement is "Women Empowering Women."

The Sisters also take cultural pride in creating what they call "blankets of color."

"Creativity is in their DNA. It's such a great outlet for them," Storton said.

One Subine woman told Storton that even though she worked hard to feed her six kids by growing crops, "I always knew I needed art in my life. Now I have it."

Back in 2007, on what she assumed would be her "first and last time to go Africa," Storton became enamored with such women. "The women of Kapchorwa are special," says Storton. "There's something very endearing about the Sabine people. Historically they've always been a peace-loving tribe; they have wonderful temperaments.

"They'll pick up an abandoned child and care for it as a community. They're true sisters."

Storton is helping the Sisters cook up another endeavor. Kitchen space was designed into the new vocational center, with an eye to a future catering business. "The ladies are becoming so accomplished," says Storton, who has taught them to prepare several new dishes with just a few basic ingredients: vegetable soup, carrot and banana cakes. She foresees Sisters of the Heart catering large events, particularly weddings.

"We have the space now. We just need the equipment."

Storton is writing new grants and seeking funds for this new phase.

She returned from Uganda in April, resupplied with quilts, fabrics, market bags, table runners, cell-phone bags and French press cozies for sale. And there's a new item, soon to make an appearance at Sisters Coffee Company: fabric gift bags which neatly fit a one-pound bag of coffee.

Storton will exhibit the African quilts during the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show to raise awareness and support for the Sisters of the Heart Foundation.

"I'm passionate about drawing attention to these women. Being creative has empowered them," she says.

For more information contact Janet Storton at 541-595-1818, or visit http://www.sistersoftheheartfoundation.org.