LeEllen Smith takes materials others see as useless and turns them into something beautiful.
She believes God can do the same with people.
The longtime member of the Troy Church of Christ
in rural northwest Tennessee — who learned to sew at age 12 — runs OUTsideIN
. She and her staff produce everything from the long, popular “maxi skirts” for women to dresses for girls. They also make keychains and bracelets — all from donated T-shirts.
From sleeve to hem, it all gets recycled. If anything is left, it becomes stuffing for dog beds the nonprofit donates to the local shelter.
“Wear One, Share One” is the nonprofit’s slogan. For every purchase made, OUTsideIN sends a “BlessDress” to one of Kerin’s Kids
, a ministry that serves orphaned, abandoned, neglected and sick children in the African nation of Zambia.
Smith, who has a degree in accounting, traces the nonprofit’s genesis to a church-sponsored recovery program. About two years ago she started volunteering with the program — and she saw a need.
“I was burdened,” she told The Christian Chronicle. “I began to have such a heart for people struggling.”
She saw a common denominator — people in recovery “need a place to be and work to do,” she said.
For that reason, OUTsideIN focuses on mentoring the chronically unemployed — people whose past mistakes or lack of qualifications make it hard to find and keep jobs.
The nonprofit’s store, located in Troy’s historic town square, employs two women — with others coming and going through court-ordered community service requirements.
One employee, Kristi Smith, said she couldn’t sew on more than a button before she came to OUTsideIN. Previously labeled as disabled, she’s now an accomplished seamstress.
More importantly, “it’s given order and direction to my life,” said Kristi Smith, who’s not related to LeEllen Smith.
Because of her mentor’s influence, Kristi Smith attends church regularly and hopes to go back to school. But she doesn’t plan to leave her job with the nonprofit anytime soon, she added.
Though job training is important, “the real need has been for self-esteem and empowerment … healthy, positive women in their lives,” LeEllen Smith said. OUTsideIN sponsors “employee enrichment activities” that allow women to socialize and befriend members of their communuty.
“I try to pay attention to the things that make me sad, make me mad or make me glad,” she said. Then “I try to listen and use the gifts and abilities I know I have” to make things better.