Dedicated volunteers sew handbags from donated fabrics to help support Magdalene House for women recovering from addiction
From left: Volunteer seamstresses Gail Masocco, Susan Jones, Pam Freiheit, Terry Gregory, and Nancy Milham meet to craft handbags that are sold through Magdalene House’s online market.
While most handbags have room for the necessities of daily life—keys, wallet, and phone—the bags crafted to raise money for Magdalene House have something extra sewn in: hope.
Volunteer seamstress Pam Freiheit has been sewing bags since about four years ago when she answered an ad in a local quilt shop seeking people to craft and donate accessories to Magdalene House. “I thought that was a good thing,” says the former occupational therapist who retired to Summerville in 2008. “I started by making little coin purses, and as that progressed, there were yoga bags and smaller things. I found that it suited me and it suited the cause. The more I went, the more I learned, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to do it.”
Founded in Summerville in 2007, Magdalene House offers women recovering from addiction a place to stay for up to 18 months until they can get back on their feet. Residents are referred from hospitals, treatment facilities, homeless shelters, or the legal system. While there, they must remain sober, be employed, work toward career and education goals, treat their mental health, and meet any terms of probation. “Homelessness, abuse, incarceration, human trafficking—we often find that the primary cause of a lot of that is addiction, and once we get that managed, we can work on the other pieces,” says executive director Liz Milligan, a former volunteer who is also in recovery. “Our motto at Magdalene House is to ‘be the light,’ because when you are stuck in a dark place like addiction and you come out of that, it’s like you are shining.”
Retail sales from the bags and other items provide about a quarter of the annual budget for Magdalene House.
The nonprofit is funded through private grants and donations, with about a quarter of its budget coming through retail sales. Because of COVID, most of the sales of the accessories have moved from farmers markets and craft fairs to the nonprofit’s website, but the bags—made from cotton, upholstery, or leather—still sell out, especially the “Trail Tote,” a versatile shoulder style available in two sizes.
The bags are sold alongside essential oils, beauty products, and jewelry, some crafted by residents. “When women complete the program, they design their own signature jewelry that is named after them so the legacy of hope lives on after they leave Magdalene House,” Milligan says.
For the bags, a small circle of women meet regularly to browse the storage closet of donated fabric to see what inspires them. Sometimes, Freiheit says, a fabric will “speak to me,” and she spends four to five hours sewing and experimenting with different colors or pocket placement.
Freiheit often uses the samples of leather and upholstery she discovered at a local La-Z-Boy store while a friend was shopping for furniture. She asked the store manager whether she could pick up the samples if they planned to throw them away when they were done. “I was using cotton, and I started using the sample fabrics and putting them together. They made nice, durable purses, and then they were selling well, so I continued to use the La-Z-Boy fabrics,” she says. “I find it’s a wonderful way of taking something someone is discarding and putting it to good use.” More recently, a hip replacement surgery made it more difficult for Freiheit to transport her sewing machine, but she continues to give her time, crafting at home instead. “I like the idea of women helping women,” she says.
Milligan says that commitment allows Magdalene House’s mission and the women there to thrive. “Volunteers can support this amazing life-giving organization, and Magdalene House receives some financial stability,” she says.