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Big-money friends help choir-robe firm fill needs

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A choir-robe company that recruits welfare recipients is getting by with a little help from some big-money friends.

Support from several philanthropies is helping West Jackson Apparel survive in a textile industry threatened by foreign competition.In the early 1990s, the Rev. Thomas Jenkins, pastor of New Lake Church of Christ in Jackson, started the company through a nonprofit organization.

"We wanted to be in a long-lasting market," Jenkins said. "The natural thing would be to create a custom choir-robe business, because in Mississippi there are over 5,000 churches - and each church has an average of three choirs, ranging from 25 members to 100 members."

The plant now employs 14 women, including nine former welfare recipients screened by the state. "We deliberately wanted to hire people that were unemployed. We deliberately wanted to hire people that were on welfare, because these people need to get into the mainstream," Jenkins said. "A lot of times people say, `Get ex-workers back into the mainstream.' Some of the welfare workers have never been in the mainstream."

Employee Christina McGee, 46, a former welfare recipient, received six weeks of training after the frustrating job search. "Employers would say they were hiring, and when I go to fill out an application, they would tell me they are not hiring," she said. "It was kind of hard."

McGee welcomed the work. "Since I have been working full time, it has made my life much better. I can look forward to a paycheck when I come to work now, and I like working."

Backing for the effort comes from several sources. A $250,000 federal grant from Department of Health and Human Services helped open the company, which also makes draperies.

In 1990, the nonprofit Seedco, of New York City, unveiled a plan for local groups to revitalize communities surrounding historically black colleges and universities. With Ford Foundation funds, Seedco offers technical and financial assistance to such community groups.

In 1991, the West Jackson Community Development Corp., one sponsor of the choir-robe factory, linked up with nearby Jackson State University to raise more than $3 million to rebuild the neighborhood. Over the past five years, Seedco provided $400,000 for the CDC to keep the factory going.

Howard Boutte, CDC executive director, called it unusual for nonprofit organizations to fund a for-profit company. "In the terms of economic development, we can be considered a model," he said.

While still a struggling startup, West Jackson Apparel is not afraid of foreign competitors because it produces robes for very local customers. "The mass-produced sewing operations all are moving out of the country," Boutte said. "Because the robes are custom made, we have a certain level of intrigue."

The Rev Jenkins agreed: "That's not a robe that you can do in Mexico or the Philippines. That's why we came up with the business."

West Jackson Apparel is the only minority-owned choir robe producer in Mississippi.