L-R, Tennie Thurman, 23, is an intern with St. Petersburg College studying social and human services; Susan Katz, MSW and Audrey Myers all keeping busy at the crafting table
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST PETERSBURG – The The Red Tent Women’s Initiative held a soft opening for their Red Tent Market, a storefront featuring original and handmade merchandise made by Red Tent participants. Located at 1535 16th St. S, the market is a perfect place to satisfy your crafting needs, whether it’s buying that special something or sitting at a craft table creating your own designs.
Reasonably priced handmade jewelry, tote bags, pillows, paintings, hair bands, greeting card and other unique whimsical works of art crafted by Red Tent members and crafting enthusiast are being sold at the market. The artists receive 65 percent of the proceeds, and the Pinellas Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition (PERC) gets the other 35 percent.
Operating under the auspices of PERC, the Red Tent Women’s Initiative’s mission is to improve the lives of women, both in the Pinellas County Jail and in the community.
Red Tent Assistant Director Susan Katz, MSW
“To do that, we provide safe spaces for them to come together and create marketable art,” said Red Tent Assistant Director Susan Katz, MSW.
While the ladies are creating art, whether they’re embroidering, sewing or any other artistic expression, they are saturating with different kinds of communication skills, life skills and resources. The atmosphere of trust and encouragement that surrounds the women is precisely what they need while in transition.
In 2012, Red Tent founder Barbara Rhode, a licensed marriage and family therapist, was working for a work-release center and noticed that many of the women were depressed and slept away their sentences with no treatment for the trauma they’d experienced.
After reading the book “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant, which describes a time in ancient cultures where they had an actual red tent in the middle of communities where women could go and heal and help and support one another, she asked if she could start a group at the Pinellas County Jail.
She was told no one would sign up.
“There was a waiting list within two weeks,” said Katz, adding that they are now up to three classes a week, four hours a day.
“Many of them, especially in the Pinellas County Jail, they have a history of abuse, trauma, addiction, so they’re fighting a lot of demons, and in general, that’s why they’ve landed in the position they’re in,” said Katz.
Red Tent aims to stop the cycle of recidivism and make sure that when their women are released, they are not isolated and alienated anymore and that they have a place to come that’s safe.
While in jail, however, the ticket into the class is a sewing needle. While sewing and creating, the non-violent offenders can listen to music and drink coffee while enjoying an atmosphere of trust and encouragement.
“While they’re there, we’re talking about communication skills, we’re talking about life skills, we’re talking about reintegration, we’re talking about the cycle of addiction — anything that we can think of that they need to be educated on or that will help them once they leave not to come back,” averred Katz.
The ladies are also given an opportunity to earn their GED. An instructor from Pinellas Technical College will help them study and pass the test.
Once they are released, the support doesn’t stop. Currently, Red Tent has three community support groups — one in Clearwater (Pinellas Hope), Pinellas Park (PERC Continental Hotel) and St. Pete (Baldwin Women’s Residence) — that meets one day a week. They have also partnered with Subway Restaurant in placing their participants in positions.
Also, once the ladies have served their time, they are reunited with artwork and can now sell it at the market.
Store manager and Community Liaison Audrey Myers
One such lady who took advantage of the Red Tent Women’s Initiative both in and out of jail is Audrey Myers, who once spent eight months in Pinellas County Jail and is now the market’s store manager and community liaison.
Showing off her handmade purses and pillows, Myers explained that she couldn’t sew before attending Red Tent sessions in jail and is now being commissioned to create her famous totes and purses out of cut-off jeans.
“I knew how to hem something with a needle and thread, but no, not really. You just don’t know how creative you are until you start doing something,” Myers said. “Give it a try; you might like it.”
Yes, Myers is inviting the public down to the store to create your very own masterpieces. There’s a crafting table, sewing machines and all the donated materials you can think of. If you feel the need to make a beaded necklace or sew a patchwork blanket, the store is open — free of charge — to anyone wishing to use the facility.
Also, if you have extra yarn, beads and baubles, glitter, paint or other materials you’d like to donate, please bring them by the store.
For now, the market is opened Wednesdays and Thursday from 10-4 p.m., Fridays from 10-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10-4 p.m. So, stop by, spend some money, create one-of-a-kind art all while helping and supporting other women.