Faith, Hope and Sewing Skills: Making a Difference

by Nina Chung and Suzanne Stoltz


Up to the 1920s, many Italian immigrants to Canada relied on faith, hope and the skills they had acquired to make a new life for themselves. Among them was Angela Parrotta who arrived in the mid-1920s with her young daughter, Maria. Among other things, Angela, who was a widow and just 25 years old at that time, used her sewing and lace-making skills to make a living and to be able to stay in Canada. She passed her skills on to her daughter who was selling their embroidery and lace work from the young age of seven.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMary Parrotta (who later became Mary Ierullo) became a young entrepreneur. Angela opened a small store-front shop where she sold their handmade specialty items. Today, Angela Ierullo, who bears her grandmother’s name, was touched by a similar tale of perseverance and making the most out of life with what you have at hand. Angela recently got involved with a project in Kenya which takes young women from rural villages to a sewing college in a town called Malindi. The two-year program teaches tailoring skills as well as how to start up and run a sewing business.

Another Ottawa woman, Nina Chung, has taken the training program a step further by establishing a project to sponsor students to the sewing college. As part of the program, graduates receive their own brand new foot-pedal sewing machine—exactly the same style of machine used by Angela’s mother at her small shop.


Many villages in rural Kenya are without electricity. This means the old-fashioned foot-pedal sewing machines continue to be prized possessions for tailors there. Just ask Mary Kombe, a graduate from the sewing program in December 2010. At 21 years old Mary is unique in her village. She is still single (by choice) and independent. Not only does she have independence, and a brighter future with her small sewing business, she was also able to build herself a traditional rural house with mud walls and a thatch roof. She later added a second building for her sewing workshop. Recently, she began taking on her own students and continues to spread knowledge and help others like herself. Like Angela’s mother, this Mary is making a real difference in her community. “This is exactly the type of difference that we were hoping for” says Nina Chung, “when we established Elimu as a charity.” The word “Elimu” means education in Swahili. Nina went to Kenya in 2004 on a volunteer posting. While there, she met a grandmother caring for five of her grandchildren abandoned by their parents.


Two of the boys were of school age but were not in school. Their grandmother simply could not afford the $7.50 per month required to pay nursery school fees.

Nina stepped in and offered to pay the school fees. Friends visiting Kenya at the time bought the children school uniforms and backpacks. This small step in 2005 was the first of many towards the forming of the Canadian-based charity. Elimu now has three projects in Kenya: a small childrens’ home, a two-year sponsored sewing project and an initiative that in two years has almost completed a three-room nursery school for approximately 100 children.


Nina lives in Kenya for most of the year and personally oversees the projects working directly with community leaders. Elimu was established in 2010 to help ensure viability of their projects for the long-term. They received official charitable status in 2012. This global initiative began modestly with Nina gathering funding for the 14 children and their home with only the help of a handful of friends and family.

Find out more about the people and projects behind Elimu at

Find out how you can get involved by checking the web page above or contacting Angela Ierullo at 613 828 1807