Richland woman hopes to take handmade shoes to children in Africa

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldDecember 3, 2012 

April Martin's first attempt at sewing didn't go well. She bought a sewing machine, determined to make a pair of pajamas.

"It was awful," she recalled last week with a laugh. "I had a horrible experience. The next day, I returned the sewing machine."

That was about five years ago.

Martin tried again a couple of years later, and she's hardly stopped sewing since. The 27-year-old from Richland created a popular line of children's shoes -- called Joe-Ellz -- that's taken off online and is sold in boutiques around the U.S. and beyond.

In February, she'll head to Ndola, Zambia, to deliver hundreds of handmade booties to the Buseko Children's Home and surrounding community.

"Our goal is to take 2,000 pairs," she said. "I really think we can do it."

Martin is making the trip to Africa with four others -- her sister and a pal, who both live in Canada, and friends Kendal Orona and Meiske Morgan from the Tri-Cities.

The Tri-City friends are helping her sew the booties they'll carry across the globe. Morgan, a local hospice nurse, said she believes the journey will be life-changing -- giving each of the five women new perspectives.

Martin hasn't done a count of how many booties they've made so far, but the stash grows steadily.

"There are some days that I think that if you were to cut me, I would bleed shoes because that's how many shoes I make," she said.

Martin is balancing sewing booties for the orphanage and filling orders for boutiques and her online shop. Her shoes are colorful and creative -- featuring everything from football team logos to butterflies.

One pair of vintage-style baby booties for sale through Etsy is made from tea-dyed newsprint fabric. Buttons are fashioned from pennies.

Shannon Toranzo, owner of In Bloom Maternity & Baby in Pasco, carries Joe-Ellz shoes. She said Martin's close attention to detail sets her apart.

"She has a beautiful product, and they're so well made," Toranzo said. "Every time we put (photos) on our Facebook page, we immediately get all these 'likes.' "

Morgan describes her friend's shoes as cute but also sturdy and comfortable for little feet.

"April is really using her talents and the gifts she's been given," Morgan said.

Martin creates the Joe-Ellz shoes in the family room of her Richland home. Her sewing machine sits in a corner, next to containers filled with fabric and shipping material. Pictures drawn by her daughter, Ellie, 2, hang on the wall. Martin's family also includes husband, Ryan, and stepson Solomon, 13, who help Martin make the penny buttons that sometimes adorn her shoes.

Martin learned of the Zambia children's home through her sister, who sponsors kids there. It's run by the Canadian organization Seeds of Hope.

Some children in the home suffer from HIV/AIDS; many have lost parents to the virus, the group's website said.

The booties Martin and her group are making for the home will help protect the children from parasites and diseases they can pick up through bare feet.

Although making the shoes is time-consuming, Martin said it's rewarding to think of how a venture she launched in her home has taken her so far -- and will help kids so far away.

The other day, while she was sitting at her sewing machine making booties for the children's home, tears started to flow -- "just at the thought that some little kid is going to not step on a rock because they're wearing my shoes," Martin said.

"It's kind of a heart-warming thing."

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