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Volunteers at Salvation Army Harbor Light sort socks

Congo-Minneapolis connection helps impoverished

Added on Monday, March 24, 2014

Socks knitted by a small group of disadvantaged women in Congo are warming the feet of hundreds of men and women served at The Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in Minneapolis. The socks were distributed there Thursday, March 20.

“What a gift: 1,500 pairs of socks to give to the neediest of Minnesota, hand-knitted by women from Africa,” said Envoy Bill Miller, Salvation Army Harbor Light administrator. “These were passed out in our nutrition line, which serves thousands every week.”

Socks made by widows in Congo as a means to make a livingOf course, warm socks are sorely needed in March in Minneapolis, but this large donation is doing much more than warming feet. Production of the socks provides opportunities for literacy, income, stability, hope and better lives for the Congolese women who make them, as well as for their children and communities.

So how did Salvation Army Harbor Light get connected with these women? It all started with Harbor Light volunteer Steve Conrad, founder of Forgotten Shirts. Conrad’s company hires women in need in Benin, Congo, to make the socks, while also providing opportunities for them like literacy training.

The Women Behind the Socks

The first five employees of Forgotten Shirts were particularly vulnerable – widows with no other way to earn an income. The nonprofit engaged a seamstress to help train the women, and over the next two years, worked diligently through several iterations of product design, improving quality and consistency.

All the socks created during the past two years, while perfectly good, were prototypes, and not destined for public sale, which will begin in late 2014. Knitted with love, hope and optimism, the socks needed a good home. What better place than Minneapolis’ Harbor Light, where Conrad had volunteered?

From Shirts to Socks

Shirt sample made by Forgotten Shirts to help the people of UgandaConrad and fellow Minnesotan, Kris Lindquist, established Forgotten Shirts in Uganda in 2009. The company’s original concept was simple: buying a shirt helps a farmer and a textile worker in Uganda and a screen printer in Minneapolis. The production of shirts (pictured, right) created jobs, hope and opportunity for marginalized people in Uganda, enabling them to provide for themselves and those around them.

Conrad and Lindquist were interested in expanding these opportunities to Congo, but instability and violence in the region made this a daunting task. On a 2011 visit to Congolese city of Benin, they met Jimmy Tsongo, an economics student and entrepreneur; together they landed on the idea of making knit socks, which was feasible with the available materials and equipment.

Tsongo was hired as Forgotten Shirt’s country director for Congo, and in short order, set up the business, learned to use hand-cranked, circular knitting machines, and identified potential hires.

“We at The Salvation Army Harbor Light Mission are grateful for groups that are doing outstanding work to help the less fortunate,” Miller said. “We extend our thanks to this wonderful group. We are thrilled to partner with them.”