The AIDS Orphan Sewing Project provides sewing machines to young women in Tanzania to learn a trade. (Submitted photo)

If her eyes could talk, they would tell the myriad gruesome stories Sr. Stella Storch, a Sinsinawa Dominican, has heard throughout the past couple of decades about child trafficking and how she went about empowering teen girls whose parents died of AIDS.

For her upcoming 80th birthday, she wants to save more, one sewing machine at a time.

Sr. Stella lived and worked in Fond du Lac for the past 25 years, and had her first opportunity to visit Tanzania, East Africa, 20 years ago.

“This came about because in 1990 we had a woman named Sr. Helen, from Bukoba, Tanzania, who came to live with us in the Blessed Sacrament Convent in Madison for five years,” said Sr. Stella. “She got her MBA at Edgewood College and returned home. I wanted to meet her family and finally had the opportunity in 2000 when I finished a leadership team for the Sinsinawa Dominicans and had time before beginning a new job.”

Arriving in Bukoba, she met her friend, Sr. Helen, and her family, and learned of some of the work the sisters were doing in the community, including their work with AIDS orphans.

The young girls were born into extreme poverty and had no family or hope for their future. Sr. Stella learned how they were easy prey for child traffickers, who would kidnap, sell and abuse these girls.

Heartbroken by these stories, Sr. Stella was determined to help in whatever way she could. She thought if the girls could learn a trade, like sewing, they would be able to earn a living and care for themselves and their siblings. The orphan girls usually live with grandparents or foster families.

Education in Tanzania is free through seventh grade but there is tuition after that. She knew the girls would be victims if they had no formal education or training to follow, so she came up with a partnership called “The AIDS Orphan Sewing Project,” which is part of the St. Maria Goretti Organization of the Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, located in Bokuba.

While the sisters already had the beginnings of a sewing program at the school, Sr. Stella envisioned it as a three-year boarding school that would encompass education, a sewing and tailoring trade, and learning to cook, garden, clean and be self-sufficient.

“I knitted 100 scarves and sold them for $20 each and bought their first treadle sewing machine,” she said. “In those years, we had sisters from that congregation studying at Alverno or Cardinal Stritch and when the sisters would go back and forth, they would bring me things to sell. I started the Tanzanian Trunk Show, and I also went to craft shows and sold their things. I sold placemats, dresses, shirts and Batik bags, and raised funds for the school and sewing machines.”

Since Tanzania built its colleges, it is cheaper to educate the sisters there now and too expensive to ship the handmade items to the U.S. The trunk show ended in 2013, but Sr. Stella continues fundraising for the school.

Currently, 60 girls are enrolled in the program, and Sr. Stella fundraises to ensure the girls receive room and board, and are educated and supplied with all their sewing notions. They have learned to mend and make bags, dresses and even their school uniforms.

“Each girl starts with a treadle sewing machine, which will be theirs when they graduate,” she said. “More than 500 girls have graduated since the inception of the program, and each received a sewing machine.

The treadle sewing machines cost around $250 each, and Sr. Stella hopes benefactors will come forward to ensure the program continues.

“Sex trafficking of women and children is a multibillion-dollar business, and it occurs right here in our community and state. Empowering girls to earn a living and get an education is the best way to prevent the trauma of sexual abuse,” she said. “This program gives the girls the strength to believe in themselves, and not one of the girls who has been through the program have been trafficked. This is the only program that actually works with the teen girls to keep them from being trafficked.”

Because she is turning 80 in July, and she says, “she forgets a few things,” Sr. Stella is transitioning into an advisory role in managing the AIDS Orphan Sewing Project. Her friend, Tracy Abler, will begin overseeing the project.

“She is a dear friend of mine for the past 22 years. She is a laywoman and has my former job as the Coordinator of Justice, Peace and Ecology,” she said. “However, I will be in the picture for a while yet, as I have a history with so many donors and their families. I want to continue. For now, I am still the one who collects the donations and writes grants and thank you notes.”

If you want to help Sr. Stella on her birthday with donations to purchase sewing machines for the next classes of girls, visit and click on the donate button.