VIDEO: Mending lives by mending furniture

Jamika teaches Jannie how to put the pieces back together in a chair and in her life. (Isabella Szabolcs/Medill)

By Isabella Szabolcs

Young women from Chicago’s South Side can find a safe space through a non-profit called Teena’s Legacy. Jamika Smith founded the organization to teach women how to repair their lives by repairing furniture. The summer re-upholstery program helps Englewood women, ages 17-21, through a path of self-discovery and economic self-sufficiency.

Like torn, worn out and broken-down chairs in need of re-upholstery, these young women want to mend the pieces of their lives back together. Most of the participants come from challenging backgrounds and rough neighborhoods like Englewood. Many have been mentally, physically and verbally abused since childhood. They are products of inter-city communities and victims of poverty, poor education and violence, Smith says.

Many of the women come from single-mother and broken households who pay them little attention. Smith says that as a result of their family instability, they go through life misguided. Jannie Ross is one of these women. “She has a beautiful spirit, she’s very giving. Unfortunately, she just lives in a situation that dictates who she is as an individual. Because she operates based off of her environment,” Smith says.

Jamika tears down old fabric to re-upholster a new chair.(Isabella Szabolcs/Medill)
Jamika tears down old fabric to re-upholster a new chair. (Isabella Szabolcs/Medill)

Like Ross, the women don’t always have a role model to follow. Smith tries to fill that gap. She gives them the opportunity to soul-search in a safe environment and helps them restore their self-worth through re-upholstery. The re-upholstery program serves as a metaphor Smith says. The idea is to help the women break down the layers of their problems as they rip through the layers of furniture.

During the session, the women talk about who they are as individuals, what their goals are, where they’re at in their life, what’s holding them back from accomplishing these goals and how they can get there. Once they get to this point, they start putting the chair back together and they get to choose their ‘statement’ piece of fabric. The fabric they choose represents who they aspire to become as women.

Last summer, Ross picked a pink and soft plush material for her chair. She chose this fabric because she wanted to become a little softer. “Because right now, in my environment, I have to be hard, I have to be alert. It’s like I can’t ever put my guard down,” said Smith about Ross’ choice. “So even though she has this softness inside her, she can’t bring it out because of the environment she lives in.”

Since the program runs only in the summer, the process of healing is not fast or easy. When they’re not in the program, the girls still have to deal with “what’s going on in their household, what’s going on in their school, their community. So they’re still subjected to that type of environment,” Smith says. However, for most, the process is ultimately a rewarding one. “For me just planting the seed is so powerful,” Smith says.

Smith is currently trying to raise $10,000 for the summer program that starts on June 22.

Photo at top: Jamika teaches Jannie how to put the pieces back together in a chair and in her life. (Isabella Szabolcs/Medill)


In Chicago, watch Medill Reports video stories on CAN-TV channel 27