- October 16, 2021
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Partly to mostly cloudy. High 56F. Winds WNW at 10 to 20 mph..
Partly cloudy. Low 43F. Winds W at 5 to 10 mph.
Updated: October 16, 2021 @ 7:03 am
For many people, traveling has been a joy of the past due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lorelei VerLee, founder of Creative Women of the World in Fort Wayne, had to postpone her trip to help the people of Lebanon because of the pandemic.
“In reality, the first shutdown that began in March 2020, I wasn’t able to go anywhere for over a year,” VerLee said. “I was then actually able to go in May of 2021, and by that time, I have had both of my initial two COVID shots, so I felt safe enough to go.”
As a member of the Rotary Club of Fort Wayne, VerLee is no stranger to helping those in need. So once she felt she was safe enough to travel, Lebanon was her destination.
She was there for about three weeks.
“There is still a lot of protocol that you have to follow in order to be able to travel during this time,” VerLee said.
She explained that she had to have a COVID-19 test done within the previous 72 hours of landing in Lebanon, even if the traveler is fully vaccinated. Upon arrival, another COVID-19 test is administered at the airport.
“We had to wear masks everywhere,” VerLee said. “The flights are like 7-8 hours long, and there’s two of them. And so, of course, even when you sleep, you have to have them on. That was interesting traveling for sure.”
VerLee traveled with someone named Dr. Sharon. VerLee said Dr. Sharon does not provide her full name for security reasons. The two stayed in a home in Zahlé.
Zahlé in Lebanon is in the middle of wine country, according to VerLee, but it is also close to the Syrian border. There are several refugee camps in that area.
“The people who invited us have a nonprofit called Together for the Family, TFF,” VerLee said. ”They work with Syrian refugees, both adult women and children. Their mission is to give training, and also they provide food.”
In these refugee camps, people were placed into tents in close proximity to each other. VerLee and Dr. Sharon knew this before they arrived, so they brought masks for the refugees to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the settlements.
Project Hope is the parent nonprofit organization for TFF.
On Aug. 4, 2020, large amounts of explosive ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut exploded, killing 218 people and injuring more than 7,000 people.
“We saw the explosion site in downtown Beirut — and thousands were displaced — and homes and apartment buildings around the port where these silos were storing explosive material,” VerLee said. “They were there seven years waiting for something to be done with them.”
VerLee works with TFF’s sewing school that teaches women how to use sewing machines, create products and other activities. Once they graduate from the program, each woman receives a sewing machine and the basic equipment needed to start a sewing business.
VerLee said Creative Women of the World’s purpose is to create relationships.
“When we go someplace and give our training, it’s not a one-off thing,” VerLee said. “We actually establish friendships with these people and have ongoing relationships with them. So when you go for the first time like I did this last May, I was just trying to get to know the people, understand how their project works and what were they asking for. I never go and assume that I know what they want, but I say, ‘Here is what I have. What part of this are you interested in?’”
A cosmetology school is also available as part of the TFF programs. When those women graduate, they receive the equipment they need to start a beauty salon.
VerLee also helps women who are interested in starting their own businesses.
“I teach them how to run their business sustainably,” VerLee said. “I have written a curriculum called ‘Unlocking Your Design.’ It’s a six-module curriculum that goes all the way from identifying what your personal assets are and the assets around you to developing a business plan.”
More information about this curriculum can be found at Creative Women of the World’s website at gocwow.org.
She tailors her teachings to what each specific group wants to learn.
“Sometimes I teach all six modules, sometimes I just do the parts that they are most interested in,” VerLee said. “When I went this time, we didn’t have time to go through all six modules, but I did introduce them to some of the personality assessments so they could determine what their gifts are and how they can use their gifts to make a good business.”
Managing finances is also part of the courses these women take.
“I also taught the basics of how to manage your money in your business and how to divide up the income you have so that you have the money available when you have an expense from a particular part of your business,” VerLee said.
She only teaches in places where she is invited.
There are other countries that she would like to help if invited. One requirement for her to go is there needs to be a safe place for her to stay. In the middle of the pandemic, it limits her options.
COVID-19 ravaged many people in the past year and a half, but she tries to have a positive outlook.
“COVID is horrible, there is no doubt about it, for a lot of people,” VerLee said. “So many people have lost loved ones. So I am very sensitive to that. But I also know there have been some blessings that have come out of it, for me anyway, in terms of training women.”
She was instructing a local class on entrepreneurial training in Fort Wayne when the state went into lockdown, so she had to make adjustments to continue teaching.
“We had to go online, and I have never taught online before,” VerLee said. “This was really interesting, but we quickly pivoted, and I was able to do it through Zoom. We had a very successful class that finished in the spring, and then we did another one in the summertime, again for local people.“
Making her classes accessible online, she was able to help more people. She mentioned she is working with women in Zambia, Africa, and Quito, Ecuador, over WhatsApp and that their training is going well.
WhatsApp allows people to text, call and video chat with people from other countries. It works through Wi-Fi, so VerLee does not have to pay international calling rates. She said it had made a substantial difference in her ability to contact people.
According to VerLee, until recently, most people in Lebanon were either classified as middle class or upper-middle class.
This is not the case anymore.
“Now, because of all of the economic turmoil, 70% of the population is under the poverty level,” VerLee said. “It’s just ridiculous. It used to be called the Paris of the Middle East because it was so sophisticated and such a thriving community. In fact, it had a banking system that was similar to the Swiss, where people from all over the world would bank with them. That has gone down completely.”
She also said the value of Lebanese currency had dropped more than 90% while the cost of items has risen at least 400-500%.
“Two years ago, you could go to the market and, for a certain amount of money, you could buy a whole week’s worth of groceries for your family, and now, all you can buy is one bottle of milk,” VerLee said. “This is an ongoing situation that is getting worse and worse by the day. I really want people to be aware of this.”
The explosion made what was already a precarious situation in that country amplified more, VerLee said, and it devastated Lebanon.
Lebanese people are also struggling to get fuel, according to VerLee. She explained her experience.
“Because it was so challenging for them to get fuel, you would see gasoline stations with a line a mile long, people trying to wait to get in,” VerLee said. “When they would get up to the pump, all they were allowed to buy was 1 liter. That has been so hard for them.”
What makes VerLee qualified to teach these classes? She has a lifetime of experience and a specific perspective that taught her so much throughout the years.
She grew up in Japan, the daughter of lifelong American missionaries, and had a dream to help people through art. She loves art, citing a high school art teacher in Japan that helped guide her.
“The whole culture of Japan is very aesthetic,” VerLee said. “I was deeply influenced by that.”
VerLee came to America to study art and art education. She earned her master’s degree in textile design. For 10 years, she taught in public school systems throughout the state.
“I kept wanting to do this international work from the beginning, but I never could find anybody in Indiana that was doing anything like that that I could join forces with,” VerLee said. “So I just kept it tucked in the back of my mind.”
Then, she started several small businesses. By her admission, some of those businesses were successful, and some were not, but she learned important lessons in every case.
She considers herself globally minded.
“I have the education, and I have the experience,” VerLee said. “Honestly, even though I’ve never went to school for business, I felt like what I learned from the mistakes and successes that I had in my own businesses, I was able to identify with other women and in the process, we could all succeed.”
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