By Katie Faulkner
Photos courtesy of Savanna Brown
Hailey Johnston has always had a heart for helping women in need. After years of working to establish an outlet for giving back, Hailey has put her passion for creativity to work. Now, nestled in the heart of downtown Cleveland, Free 2 Fly is sewing hope in the lives of local women.
“For them to see the quality and beauty of the items they can create, and then see how much people love them and how quickly they sell, it’s a huge self-esteem boost.”
Hailey opened Project: Free 2 Fly in 2014 to help women in the Cleveland area who have found themselves in difficult circumstances. Her nonprofit teaches women in need how to create hand-crafted products, providing them a fresh start with work, new skills, and mentorship.
For the first two years, Hailey rented office space and sold their handcrafted products mostly online and in pop-up markets. Their rapid growth in popularity and success at their annual fundraiser “Bird & Barn” encouraged Hailey and her Board of Directors to open a retail space with a windowed storefront on Broad Street in downtown Cleveland. Now community members can see the beautiful products at every stage – from pattern cutting to the final product on the shelf – as they pass on the sidewalk. They can also see the smiling faces of the women and mentors whose lives are being impacted daily.
The goal is focused – to help women by teaching them skills that are applicable and profitable. “We work with women who are at all different stages in their lives, and who are dealing with serious hardships – from homelessness to substance abuse to extreme poverty. And many of them are single mothers or young women trying to get established,” Hailey says.
Women start at Free 2 Fly through a recommendation from other nonprofits in the area. Hailey and her team partner with Cleveland area organizations – Women at the Well, Family Promise, and Foundation House Ministries – to serve as the “next step” for women who are reclaiming control of their lives. “The hope is that we have them for a minimum of one year. We really encourage them to stay as long as they need, because we want them to fully recover and get their feet back under them.”
Often retired women from area churches or organizations volunteer as mentors. They teach sewing skills to the women, and maybe more importantly, offer guidance and encouragement during each woman’s recovery. “Some women have never had the benefit of a mother-figure or even grandmother-figure in their lives, so our mentors are an incredible resource for them,” Hailey says.
Women that work at Free 2 Fly can expect to learn how to sew to artisan standards. “We start them all out on simple items, like key fobs, until they master the quality and precision we’re looking for, straight lines, tight stitches, then they move up.”
“They really progress quickly,” Hailey says, explaining that the more success they see, the more they tend to be driven to improve. “That’s such a huge part of it, for them to see the quality and beauty of the items they can create, and then see how much people love them and how quickly they sell, it’s a huge self-esteem boost,” Hailey emphasizes, “Seeing that is really key to showing them that they are capable of anything they put effort into.”
Free 2 Fly currently has eight women in their program, but Hailey has high hopes for the program’s growth. For now though, she’s focused on giving quality support to the women they work with.