Born in Sierra Leone in 1997, Ada was just a baby when her family was forced to flee to Ghana following the Sierra Leone civil war that lasted for more than 10 years.

The family remained in Ghana until she was 8 when they immigrated to Australia, initially settling in Tasmania. In 2013 her father took a job in Melbourne and the family relocated a final time.

It was shortly after moving to Melbourne that Ada was first introduced to Kontiki Cultural Women Empowerment in Sunshine.

The organisation teaches professional clothing design and builds the capacity of participants of all ages from refugee and migrant backgrounds to learn new skills and become socially connected.

Kontiki Cultural Women Empowerment has won numerous community awards and is a regular participant in the Melbourne Fashion Festival, producing high-quality fashion collections for the runway.

“When I first started taking classes, I was only 16 and very shy. I didn’t go out very much. I think my mum wanted me to join the classes at first just to help get me out of my room and to be doing something positive.”

That fateful decision has set Ada on a pathway to success and a career working in fashion that she never imagined was possible.

“Initially I wasn’t interested in fashion, I always thought that I would become a nurse like my mum. But the more classes I took, the more I loved it and I developed a real passion for fashion and working in the industry,” Ada said.

“Francess Sesay, who runs the classes, is so helpful and kind. I learnt so many things from her. She was very hands on and always right there beside you to teach and guide you on what to do.”

The skills she learned both prepared and encouraged Ada to undertake a Bachelor of Design Art at LCI Melbourne. After completing her degree, she began working in a garment factory before moving into fashion retail and working as a stylist.

She now plans to do further studies in business management, with the dream of running her own business and selling clothing online, marrying traditional African prints and colours with western designs.

“When I was younger, I didn’t like wearing culture clothes. They were so bright and really made you stand out, which as a teenager you don’t always want. But through the classes, I didn’t just learn about how to make clothes – I also learned about our culture and the history behind those colours and designs and what they mean.”

“Now I’m proud to wear culture clothes, and with the skills I’ve learned through Kontiki and my degree, I feel like I can now design them in a way that will make them fashionable for younger people to want to wear.”

Having benefited firsthand from the sewing program, Ada has come full circle and now plans to volunteer to help teach the next generation of fashionistas at the Youth Artistic Sewing and Creative Arts Workshops.

Delivered by Kontiki Cultural Women Empowerment, the Victorian Government is providing $49,000 over 2 years towards the project, with the organisation providing more than $38,000 of in-kind support. The workshops will bring together children and young people who may be at risk of disengagement, isolation, or experiencing impacts to their health and wellbeing arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Up to 400 children and young people, aged 8 to 16, from multicultural backgrounds will be supported through the classes.

The workshops will help build new skills in professional clothing designs, such as:

  • pattern making
  • sewing techniques
  • tie-dye batik, and
  • fabric painting.

Participants will also learn to develop and present design concepts, sew prototypes and construct garments.

Due to start in September this year, the project will help children and young people develop connections to their community and culture, as well as with family and peers and create future pathways to further education and employment.

Kontiki Cultural Women Empowerment was one of 15 organisations to share in more than $743,000 under round one of the Victorian Government’s Youth Engagement Grants program.

The program provides small multicultural and Aboriginal organisations with grants of up to $50,000 each over 2 years to deliver activities to children and young people between the ages of 8 and 24 to support them to connect to their community, family, friends and culture.

“I would say to young people, definitely come along. You will learn so many skills that will help you in your life – not just about sewing. You will learn about time management, problem solving, event planning, and even public speaking,” Ada said.

“You will make so many friends and the sense of accomplishment you feel when you can look at something that you’ve made yourself is so empowering.”

“I can’t believe the things I’ve done just from being part of a program like this. I never imagined that I would be going to fashion shows and working in the industry. I would never have dared to believe that I could do something like running my own business one day. But now I know that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and work for it.”

“That’s what I want to share with other young people. To tell them that you can do this, and that it might just change your life, like it did for me,” Ada said.