One Stitch at a Time

Local philanthropist and manager of R.E.M., Bertis Downs, recently sat down with Lillian Kincey and Susan and Katharine Hable in Downs’ restored building, The Lyceum, on Prince Ave.  This week, we will focus on Kincey and her role as the creator and director of the Young Designers Program. Since 2009, she has utilized her many talents to help develop this community’s budding designers through this afterschool nonprofit program, furthering its mission, “Service through sewing.”


Bertis: All right, well, thank you all for coming. It's really fun to be here. This is what I kind of hoped this building would be used for – stuff like this, stuff that matters and stuff that we care about. So, I'll just start with a real softball. Lillian, where did you grow up and what brought you to Athens? 

Lillian: I am from Los Angeles, California, and I came here because I wanted a different career. I came to UGA, and people say, "Well, you must have thought UGA was really good," and I said, "Well, it is, I found out later, but the reason I came was because the weather is better here than anywhere else. I didn't want to stay in LA to get that high (temp) degree, so I came here. And it’s destiny because this is where I met my husband, and we've been married 27 years. So, I've been here for 27 years.

Bertis: And what was your degree in? Did you come here to study education?

Lillian: No, I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I was already a school psychologist, and then when I got married and looked around at clinical psychology in a setting that I wanted to be in, it wasn't going to work. Not like it would work in a big city. So, I thought I would be something different. I went into administration, educational administration, and then from there, started off as an assistant principal.

Bertis: Eastside always?

Lillian: Fowler Drive, Gaines (Elementary), Clarke Middle

Bertis: What gave you the idea to start the Young Designers program? Because you have a background in psychology, you have a background in education, and you obviously must have a background in sewing. So what put all of those things together, and said, "I want to start a youth development program through sewing?”

Lillian: OK, well, let’s start with me learning to sew. My mother taught me to sew when I was eight years old. And my mother was the type that if she was going to teach you anything, you had to get better. You just couldn't be static. If you knew how to put in a zipper, then you would need to know how to put in an invisible zipper, and it would need to be done well. So, that's where I started with sewing. And from there, I made my prom dresses and my friends’ prom dresses. When I went to college, it was the first time I really had ever heard of a sorority, but boy, they go to balls all the time, so I was making dresses there.


Bertis: So you were a business? Where did you go to college?

Lillian: I went to Long Beach State and Fresno State. And so I was sewing then. I was a student forever, so I also began making wedding dresses. When I graduated, I converted my garage into a sewing studio. I was making wedding dresses and finally got a business license in California. 

And then I moved here and started sewing just as a hobby. But then, I opened Lillian’s Heirlooms, where I made custom christening gowns. And that happened because I was under piles of fabric from the wedding dresses, and someone asked me to make a christening gown. I did, and it was a very large, long one – lots of hand embroidery – and she paid just as much for the christening gown as someone would pay for a wedding dress. And I thought, "Well, my goodness."

Bertis: It's a pretty good deal.

Lillian: Yeah.

Bertis: Seller’s market.

Lillian: Right. So, I changed. And I did write a business plan for making christening gowns and started making those instead and felt more comfortable doing that. My passion really is heirloom sewing and hand embroidery, and I included a lot of that. People were willing to pay for it, and that's what I did. 

So, the other side of this story is that I was also a high school councelor before I moved here. I always worked in low-income neighborhoods, except when I worked in Whittier, California. And I noticed that the children were very, very bright. But they didn't get anywhere in life. They had goals. And I could just see them being the astronauts they wanted to be.

Bertis: Potential.

Lillian: Yes, they had it. But they didn't get there. 

When I graduated from high school, I didn't know where I wanted to go. My councelor said, "Well, we're going to give you classes, so you can go anywhere you want to go." And so that's what I did with these students. But they still, even if they went, they came back, and they just didn't make it. Then I moved here. As a school psychologist, and then an assistant principal, I would be in charge of discipline a lot, and so I would be dealing with the students who had problems in classes, mainly with behavior.

Bertis: Tuned out, don't care.

Lillian: Sometimes violent. Sometimes just severely disrespectful, but bright. And I would say, "What? I don't understand, talk to me, what's going on with this?” And they would talk, and I'd understand that it really didn't have anything to do with education. There was something else that was going on. So, that continued, and then I hit middle age. There's something called macular traction. Does anybody know what that is?

Bertis: I’ve heard of macular degeneration.

Lillian: That's when the stuff that's in your eyes begins to pull away, and if it doesn't pull away, you see those little floaters, that’s what’s happening.

Bertis: Yeah.

Lillian: That's what was happening. It’s supposed to just release naturally and mine didn't, so I had a big distortion in my vision.

Bertis: Wow.

Lillian: Like macular degeneration. And at first that's what they thought it was, and they said, "Well, you're too young for that, so lets see what's going on." And then they said, "Don't worry about it, it’s just going to release. It’s just taking longer for you. It’s pulling on your macular. 

So, I didn’t worry about it, and when it released, it left a little squiggle. So in one of my eyes, I have a little squiggle. It won't prevent me from doing anything, but in that time, in my prayers, I kept thinking, "You know, my mother always said that if you have a gift, it needs to be shared. It's not really yours. It needs to be shared. You give it to someone else." And then I was saying, "I haven't given my gift and my passion for sewing to anybody." 

Bertis: Wow.


“My mother always said that if you have a gift, it needs to be shared.”


Lillian: And you know, I don't have any children, so I felt I was wasting it. 

Phyllis Stewart was the principal of Gaines Elementary, and she liked to hire people who had talents. It was during that time that the district, the school district, rezoned into these neighborhood schools, and our neighborhood changed from Cedar Shoals and the surrounding area to Nellie B. Athens Gardens, low-income housing. When that happened, our after school program dried up. 

So, I went to Phyllis and said, "Phyllis, we have teachers who play guitar, and they write, and we have one that's a photographer, and I like to sew. Why don't we start our own after school program and ask teachers to volunteer? For a year, two years, it worked. We did that, but then, teaching is not just from 8 to 2:30. It was just too overwhelming for the teachers. So, I kept going. 

Bertis: You were in that trailer (at Gaines School)?

Lillian: Right, I was in that trailer. Well, I was in half that trailer. We were sharing it with the ESOL teacher. We had enough room for seven students. I didn't know where to get the machines, so I called Lynn Johns, who was the vocation person at the school district at the time, I believe. And she said, "Oh, Cedar Shoals has sewing machines. They haven't used them in years." And she was right. I pulled out those Singer sewing machines, and there were seven of them. So, we started with seven.

But in working with them, I found that yes, they wanted to and they were so eager and their parents were so happy, but the temperament and the problem solving and everything else that needs to go with actually completing something, was missing from the girls. And along with that, the frustration level, how you handled frustration, that kind of thing, wasn’t yet a skill.

Bertis: How you channel it.

Lillian: Absolutely. It was not, and that was the hardest part. Not their product, it was wonderful, once you could get through the other part of it. But it also helped me to know why being in the classroom for some of them was not successful. The same things they were showing me were the same things that they show a teacher. And it had nothing to do with their ability, but had everything to do with their temperament and their social skills. So, that's where the program changed focus. We stayed in the trailer for three years. I was able to get the whole trailer, so then I could have, I think I had, ten girls. And then my mother passed, and I just decided I was going retire. That meant that I was not going to do the sewing program anymore, and I announced that to the girls and there was one girl, Deasia, who was also one I had to work a lot with, and she said, "Well, Ms. Kincey, what are we going to do now?" And when she said that, I thought "Oh, my goodness, what are you going to do?"

And I thought I'm just going home to do absolutely nothing, except maybe make my christening gowns again. And so, I said to Deasia that we're losing the trailer, and she said, now, I don't know to this day how she knew this, but she said, "But Hillsman has three empty trailers." 

Bertis: She's learning social networking.

Lillian: Yeah.

Bertis: Problem solving.


Lillian: So, I walked over to Hilsman. I walked in, and I said to the principal, "I really need to talk to you about something. I understand you have three empty trailers, and I need one of them.” And she said,  “How do you know that?" I explained to her what the sewing program was about, and she said, "I want you to look at something." And she got up, and she pointed to her diploma from UGA, and it was in the field of family and consumer sciences. She said, "You just tell me what you want." 

Bertis: Wow. Was this the principal who just left recently?

Lillian: Yes. Selena Blankenship. 

And so she said, "Will you take some of my girls?" I already had ten, and I was thinking, “How many can I get into this trailer now?” So, I expanded it to 15. We were crammed into this one trailer. Then she said she wanted more girls, so she gave me two trailers. 

And it worked except that the program comes from me, and I was talking back and forth between two trailers, and that wasn't working so then I said, "I cant drop this program, I have the community’ support and by then people were believing in what I was doing. The kids were interested, and parents were coming on board.

Bertis: Like a difference.

Lillian: So I started looking in the community and going to every place to try to find a spot, and I found a spot that's right across the street from Hilsman. Where the kids can walk. 

Bertis: So, its really close to Cedar and Hilsman and Gaines, all three in the district.

Lillian: Yes, and that was the important part because the kids don't have transportation, and we don't have a van to pick the kids up.


Service Through Sewing


Lillian: Every year, our focus changes. Last year, it was STEM. So we did a lot of things that dealt with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math in fabrics. And this year is going to be social studies, along with business, so the girls will open up their own business. 

Bertis: Just go do it.

Lillian: And to add another part to that is that, you know they talk about entitlement with children and adults, because my mother always said that if its a gift, its not yours, you give it away. Then, that's what I teach the girls. Since we began, we started making pillowcases for the homeless shelters in Athens. 

Bertis: I‘ve heard of that yeah, I knew you were doing something.

Lillian: Right, and I mean they're fancy pillowcases, they're just not, you know, pillowcases.

Bertis: They're special.

Lillian: Right. And then each year, we do something. We've made quilts for an orphanage in Kenya, and last year, we sent 25 little pillowcase dresses to Senegal. And this year, because we're studying home décor, we are going to decorate a room in a Habitat for Humanity house. 

So the girls are learning to make decorative pillows and curtains and little foot stools and things like that. You know? One is going to crochet a rug, so we can decorate. I'm hoping it’s a girl’s room. You know, you can usually get a little fancier with a girl’s room. But the other part of that is that when I go to visit their homes, they need those skills.

Bertis: Yeah.

Lillian: When I sit down and I look around and I see their curtains put up with tacks or whatever, they need to know, so they're going to learn.

Bertis: They're going to learn practical skills

Lillian: Right. They're going to learn to make curtains out of sheets, if they need to. But they're going to learn that fabric is fabric, and you can make it into whatever you want. That's the focus this year.


Developing Life Skills Along the Way


Lillian: One of the things I noticed with the girls is that I always talk to them about rigor. And they think that that means something, a subject that's hard, but I tell them that rigor is whatever happens when you think it’s too hard. And that's what you have to have to go to the next level. That's what rigor is. Let’s say your putting in an invisible zipper, and it doesn't come out right. Their perspective is, "This is too hard, I'm going to put in a tab zipper instead." And then I'll say, "No, you're going to take this zipper out, and you're going to do it again." 

Bertis: Yep, it’s true.

Lillian: This time, we're going to make some changes, so this is where the rigor starts, this is what I tell them, if you don't get past this, then you're forever putting in lapped zippers.

Bertis: Shying away from the difficulty.


“Rigor is whatever happens when you think it’s too hard. And that's what you have to have to go to the next level.”


Lillian: Exactly. And sometimes, real life things come up. I try to tell them, "You can translate this into school." I had a group of girls two years ago that were in a class that included gifted students. Some of the students were gifted, and the other ones also had higher abilities. Well, some of those girls were in the sewing program, and they came to me upset one day. They were saying, "My teacher is too hard. He's making us do, whatever, and the other forth grade classes don't have to do that." And so I have to stop and say to them, "Hey look, you're in a class that your teacher isn't giving you hard things, he's giving you different things because you can handle the different things. Don't get mad at him and protest because he's pushing you further because you are able to do that."

Bertis: Yeah, he knows. 

Lillian: Don’t act up in the classroom just because you are learning something different.

Bertis: And you know, you can’t learn that from an online course, either. What you are talking about is not a multiple-choice test. That takes one on one, person to person, human experience. That’s why there will always be teachers.

Lillian: And so what I found was that I have to go further than that. I can’t just tell them that, because they still won't do it, it's easier just to…

Bertis: Complain.

Lillian: Yes. So I tell them, I'm going to go to your class, and I'm going to talk to your teacher after school. And I'm going to see how well you did. Because then they know…

Bertis: Hold them accountable. You have an accountability.

Lillian: Right.

Bertis: Wow, that's beautiful.

Lillian: And the application that they have to fill out to be in the program says to the parents that I am able to go in and talk to teachers, councilors, social workers, or whomever I need to, to help their child be successful. So the teachers know when I come in, they don't have to say, "Well, I can’t talk to you about test scores," or "I can't talk to you about what's going on because you don't have permission." I do have permission. Parents have given me permission. So, the kids know I'm there, and I'm there in the classroom. If they've been acting up, the teachers will come to me and say, "Mrs. Kincey, so and so did this," and I'll say "OK, lets work it out." I don't go to the child and say, "You know you shouldn't have done that." We work it out with the teacher, and sometimes I have to give language to the child to say to the teacher.


How the Community Can Help


Bertis: It's really neat. Lilian, what are the greatest needs to your program to grow and stay here in Athens? And what's good about the Athens art community? What does this community need most, what does it mean to you?

Lillian: I am just beginning to learn about the Athens art community, and I think because of the Young Designers, I'm becoming more aware of different types of art. So, that's what I can say about that. The other thing, as far as what my program needs, is that I need more hands-on people. Just like you need people to sew, I need people who know how to sew to assist me.

Bertis: To mentor. To teach you.

Lillian: Yes, it's hard to find them. 

Bertis: Kind of social work-oriented kids, who are looking to get some kind of practical experience in the community and are sewers themselves, grew up with sewing, or had a grandmother that sewed. I think these connections can be made – it’s just step by step, little by little.

Lillian: That's my sense.

Bertis: So we could help. This community could help.

Lillian: What I want for the kids is to be able to be good employees. 

Bertis: Right.

Lillian: To be good employees and to become leaders. I always stress being persistent, the rigor that's involved. I always tell them that it has to be done well. If it’s not done well, then you can’t put it out there. And I tell them, "Don't tell them I taught you how to sew, and don't tell them you learned it in the Young Designers sewing program, because that is not what we do here. “

Bertis: Thank you, Lillian, for all you are doing. 

Lillian: And thank you. This has been fun.