It’s been said that service is the rent you pay for living on this planet. For Roberta Townsel, a designer and seamstress, her skills in fashion and her personal testimony have been her way of giving back to youth across the city.
“When we were coming up, we were really poor and my mom was severely depressed. I had to step in and be like her mother in certain instances,” said Townsel. “Something was in me saying my life is going to be different. It’s not going to always be like this.”
Townsel recalls often going to school in dirty clothing and with unkempt hair, situations that caused her to have low self-esteem.
“I remember teachers saying negative things to me. I didn’t have anyone step to the side and say, ‘Let me help you.’ I want to be that helping hand,” she said.
Townsel remembers one teacher’s kind words that set her on a better path. “One teacher in grade school told me I was beautiful and blessed. That has resonated with me until this day.”
That encounter caused her to seek out more positive reinforcement. She taught herself the power of uplifting affirmations and learned the impact of having an optimistic outlook on life.
After graduating high school, Townsel worked as a nurse at Riley Hospital for Children for eight years before going into business for herself as the sole proprietor of Roberta’s Alterations. Soon after launching her business in the Haughville neighborhood on the city’s west side, Townsel saw elements of her past resurface.
The mother of three began entertaining visitors from the neighborhood — young girls not unlike herself at their age, looking for an outlet.
“Ten years ago these little girls from the neighborhood just started showing up at my shop,” she said. “They would ask me to teach them how to sew, and they’d ask me questions about my life.
“Some of them would even ask to come over to my house. I always told them I would need to speak with their mothers first, and when I would go to their homes, some of them were going through the same things I went through.
“You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? I was just like a surrogate mother. I took them in, taught them to cook and comb their hair, and that’s really how the organization started.”
In 2013, Townsel founded Transforming Designs Inc., a nonprofit that provides youth services in arts and self-enrichment, job skills training and life skills training. With one program, Beauty from the Inside Out, Townsel and her team go into schools and community organizations to teach hygiene, etiquette and self-improvement.
“I think about those days when my mother was struggling with five kids and no help. I remember me trying to help her as a child,” said Townsel. “I think it’s our responsibility to help those parents that need help.”
Townsel currently conducts classes for youth three times a month out of Eastside New Hope Baptist Church.
“They learn to make hats and scarves, purses out of blue jeans. They’re making pillows by hand, tutu skirts. What we’re doing is teaching youth entrepreneurship so they can have their own businesses at an early age,” said Townsel.
Beyond stitches, patterns and accessories, Townsel shares mantras and life lessons with her students. “I tell them, ‘I am the person that must decide what I will be. I’m capable of learning. I’m responsible for my own behavior,’” she said. “When I go into schools and see those kids … I’m looking at myself; I’m giving back to a little Roberta.”
Ashley Shockley, whose two daughters Jaslyn and Caelyn have participated in the program, said she has seen great improvements in their confidence and self-esteem.
“My daughters got involved in Transforming Design to enhance their skills and learn to make creative things to wear for themselves, such as jewelry, clothes and hair accessories. The program has given both of them a massive increase in self confidence and self motivation,” said Shockley, who added that Caelyn even went on to launch her own line of handbags. “I would recommend parents get involved in the program to help increase their children’s connection to their life purpose. It provides an opportunity for them to learn skills, network with other children, engage in creativity and positive community activities that will help them succeed later in their adulthood.”
Townsel believes fashion is not only a tool for commerce, but also a tool for changing lives.
“I see it as fashion therapy. They may have a gift that may be laying dormant inside of them, and when they start creating, they’re surprised like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I could do that.’ It’s a confidence builder. We’re transforming lives one stitch at a time.”
Currently, Transforming Design is seeking financial assistance, donations and support to help fund programs, including a newly launched teen internship focused on teaching alterations training.
For more information on how to get involved, visit transformingdesign.org or call (317) 454-4129.