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Sewn from the Heart

A love of fashion and a passion for helping others have Albright College's Sarah Swank '16 making her mark at home and abroad.


By Hilary Bentman

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Fashion design major Sarah Swank '16 in Albright's sewing lab.

They say the clothes make the man. Albright College junior Sarah Swank has discovered the same holds true for women.

In summer 2014, Swank witnessed firsthand how the simple act of donning a new outfit could engender much-needed confidence in women.

"You're not just changing her clothes, but her entire outlook on life," says the fashion design major of her internship with the Harrisburg office of Dress for Success. An international nonprofit headquartered in New York, Dress for Success helps disadvantaged women achieve economic independence by providing them with a professional suit for a job interview and clothes for when they land the job.

Clients are referred to Dress for Success by various organizations, including homeless and domestic violence shelters, job training programs and educational institutions.

Swank helped clients find the right look. And in some cases, the makeovers were profound. "(One woman) put on her suit, looked in the mirror and started to cry. It was a turning point for her."

For Swank, the Dress for Success internship was the perfect way to blend her love of fashion and her passion for helping others. It's a formula she has used in the past and one she hopes to continue duplicating in the future.

A Call to Act

Guided by her faith, the Palmyra, Pa., native has spent a lifetime helping others, near and far.

"In the Bible, Christ calls his followers to 'visit orphans and widows in their distress' and to 'open your hand to the poor.' I choose to incorporate these beliefs into every aspect of my life," says Swank.

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Swank has forged strong ties to the children of Ethiopia.

Since the age of 14, she has been taking mission trips, undeterred by precarious environments or locations. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Swank helped rebuild homes there. She has also assisted with a prison ministry called Shining Light, which visits rehabilitation centers and correctional facilities, including Riker's Island in New York.

But it's her trips to Ethiopia that have had the most profound impact. The first time Swank traveled to the Horn of Africa nation, she was just 16 years old; her church youth group had decided to take a mission trip there. Swank discovered communities stricken by poverty and disease, but she also found lifelong friends.

"Having the ability to love someone halfway across the world and to have them love you in return simply for taking the time to talk to them, or to hold their hand, or to give them a hug… it's a feeling that cannot be described, and it changed me forever." 

Swank has since returned to Ethiopia twice, even recruiting her Albright roommate for the work.

She has traveled with the organization Visiting Orphans, which operates mission trips around the world, partnering with groups, orphanages and ministries that care for children and communities. Once in country, Swank worked with such organizations as Out of the Ashes and Embracing Hope.

Swank has spent time in the village of Korah, near the capital Addis Ababa. Originally established as a leprosy colony for Ethiopians stigmatized and cast out by mainstream society, Korah's residents continue to suffer from leprosy, as well as HIV/AIDS and other diseases that have left many widowed or orphaned. Residents, including children, live off the city's trash dump, scavenging for scraps of food and items to sell.

Swank has worked with the orphans, helped run days camps, and spent time with those suffering the effects of leprosy, a chronic infectious disease that causes skin lesions, nerve damage and muscle weakness.

She relates the story of one man with leprosy who had no hands and was unable to feed himself. So Swank stepped in, and, following Ethiopian custom of not using utensils, fed the man with just her hands. 

"I was literally sustaining his life," she says.

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Swank volunteers in impoverished areas of Ethiopia, including Korah near Addis Ababa, where residents live off the city's dump.

Unfortunately, when Swank returned to Ethiopia the following year, she found the same man on his deathbed. She arrived just in time to see him before he passed away.

"So many people are in need of such basic necessities, yet the thing that is the most fulfilling is love," she says. "I have found that those who are living in poverty often times are the richest in spirit."

Helping at Home

When not traveling abroad, Swank is raising money to fund her next mission trip. She capitalizes on her sewing skills, making pillowcase dresses, infinity scarves and leg warmers, and selling the wares at craft fairs and on Facebook.

Swank also makes reusable feminine hygiene pads for the organization American Foundation for Children with AIDS, which helps communities in Africa.

Even at Albright, Swank can be found lending a hand. On Monday and Thursday evenings, she runs the fashion department's open sewing lab, offering underclassmen one-on-one attention and the benefit of her 10 years of sewing experience. She helps students perfect their technique and tackle assignments.

"The students in the sewing lab have commented that Sarah is kind, extremely helpful and knowledgeable," said Doreen Burdalski, chair of the Albright fashion department. 

Swank hopes to return to Ethiopia this summer, and will spend fall 2015 studying abroad at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. In addition to her own studies there, she will participate in a service learning program, assisting at a local primary school.

"These opportunities have allowed me to help others, yet they have helped me much more than I could have ever asked for," says Swank. "They have opened my heart to love people much more genuinely."

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