Sewing Group Founder Helps Others Move the Needle

When you first walk in to Leony Ayala’s evening sewing class, located in a small cafeteria at P.S. 149, you might be surprised to find brightly colored fabrics spread across lunch tables, intricately-stitched quilts covering benches, and handmade ornaments decorating almost every inch of the room.

The class is in its third year and is "the dream come true" of teacher Leony Ayala, a Jackson Heights resident who saw a need for more senior activities in the neighborhood.

"Spanish people don't have these kinds of classes around here. I wanted to teach something different, something nobody else had. Seniors in this neighborhood, they don't have many places to go. So when they come in here, they are happy," she said.

In her class, which is free to the public, Leony teaches sewing skills at all levels. She often brings her own fabrics for the students, most of which she collected during her time in the fashion industry.

"It takes me hours to prepare for the class, but it’s fun,” she said. “I have to bring a lot of my own materials, because we offer a very high quality class in here. These fabrics are very expensive, and each project can cost up to $400 in fabric."

To help alleviate the cost, P.S. 149 Beacon Director Dominique Fils-Aimé connected her with Materials for the Arts, a program of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs that provides free new and gently-used supplies to artists, nonprofit groups, and public schools. Leony is able to "shop" for fabrics at MFTA, free or charge, for her class.

“Working with QCH Beacon staff is a real pleasure," Leony said. "Dominique understands where these ladies are coming from. Some are coming from very little. She helps me to provide everything I need to run the class.”

The women in Leony’s class, mostly immigrant seniors, meet twice a week to work on one or two projects a month. Students volunteer to bring snacks and mostly bring their supplies from home. Approximately 15 women share six sewing machines, so much of the intricate work is done by hand.

“Most of my students didn’t know how to stitch a button before my class, but I teach them very carefully, and now look at what they can do.”

Alejandra Ramirez, a student who hasn’t missed a single class in two years, says it’s an escape for her. “Coming here is so relaxing for me, and it helps me feel better. My friends are so nice, and I am feeling so happy," Alejandra said. "This is like my escape."

Leony is proud that her students enjoy the class so much. “Many of the women, even those who don’t live in the neighborhood, never miss a class. They explain their problems to each other, so it’s really like therapy for them."

"I am happy to offer a space space for women of ages to come together and form friendships," she said. Her students range in age from 11 to 80 years. She is happy to help them grow their skillset, but also their confidence and happiness.

“Everybody can sew. Everybody can do it with just a single button. It’s like the way you project yourself. It’s the attitude you bring. I make everybody try to encourage each other to be happy and when they do anything, they do it with love.”

On May 8, Leony’s efforts earned her a feature on the broad cable network channel, NY1, as their New Yorker of the Week. Click here to watch Leony in action!

Our Beacon Programs are funded by Department of Youth and Community Development.

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