Providing uplift via upholstering

Nonprofit group seeks self-sufficiency - a quality it stresses to clients


When the wingback chair arrived at the Caroline Center about a week ago, it was covered in lime-green and cream fabric, sections of which were frayed from daily wear and tear or a mischievous pet cat.

Today, thanks to the handiwork of apprentice upholsterer Taryn Gross-Ojekwe, the chair has taken on a warm reddish-brown hue that the tradeswoman-in-training calls "nutmeg." Gone are the threads that once hung like fringe from the seat cushion.

"Every piece is done with love," Gross-Ojekwe says as she eyes the chair, the complete makeover of which - from toss-away to family room-ready - would be finished in a few days.

Gross-Ojekwe has worked her magic on cherished furniture and antiques for about a year now from the cramped corner of a crowded basement at the Caroline Center, a nonprofit organization that helps women get the education and training they need to lead successful lives and provide financial security for their families. The center also trains women to be nursing assistants, child care providers and pharmacy technicians.

In April, Gross-Ojekwe and her sister upholsterers -10 in all - will move to a larger space as part of a long-awaited expansion that Caroline Center officials say could enable the training program to be self-supporting for the first time. Charitable contributions still carry the four-year-old program, which at this time does not take in enough money from clients to cover trainee wages and other costs.

At the program's new offices at 1212 N. Wolfe St., there will be room for 16 upholsterers, a bank of sewing machines, two or more cutting tables, and more than a dozen spacious work stations, said Ann Cunningham, a former business consultant who left the corporate world about a year ago to work at the Caroline Center full time.

With the help of added staff and a market that has homeowners clamoring for affordable interior design, Cunningham said she expects the program to bring in about $53,000 in income by the end of fiscal year 2007. Fabric sales were added a year ago, and window treatment services - drapes, curtains and sashes - are expected to be added soon.

The money will be used to support other educational programs sponsored at the Caroline Center, which is run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic religious order that focuses on the education of girls and women. The upholstery program's profit model could also be applied to other programs in years to come, said Sister Patricia McLaughlin, executive director of the center.

"The traditional sources of funding are drying up," she said, referring to wealthy individuals and businesses that have typically provided money to fund nonprofit groups. "It also helps to be able to show that you are able to bring in some income yourself."

Caroline Center is one of eight nonprofit organizations that joined forces in 2004 to create "social enterprises" that would provide money for outreach and aid. The group, the Baltimore Community Wealth Collaborative, was supported in part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

The upholstery program's business plan is an outgrowth of that effort. It is also a recent runner-up in a competition co-sponsored by the Yale School of Management and the Goldman Sachs Foundation, a philanthropic organization funded by the Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

As a result, the Caroline Center was awarded $25,000 that will go toward renovations, and $19,000 worth of consulting services, said Cunningham. The nonprofit organization is still trying to raise the estimated $200,000 it will cost to renovate the Wolfe Street building, she said.

The Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, a nonprofit organization that owns the building, is also helping with fundraising, Cunningham said.

The move and expansion is also big news for the women who work in the upholstery shop. They say they are tired of sharing sewing machines and floor space.

"I'm very excited about our new building," said Mildred Marshall, 47, of Baltimore, a former apprentice who is now a full-time shop employee. "It's going to make things a lot easier."

For Gross-Ojekwe, 45, a Baltimore resident who says she gave up an unfulfilling career as a school counselor, the move brings her one step closer toward her goal of owning her own shop.

The name of her future business, Gross-Ojekwe said, will be "Eva Grand's" in memory of her grandmother, Eva, who was a gifted seamstress.

Said Gross-Ojekwe: "For me, this program was a godsend."

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