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Peace of Thread: After loss of son, mother finds purpose
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Denise Smith lost her son, Jesse, to cancer when he was almost 17. To help with her grief, she began a nonprofit, Peace of Thread, which trains and employs refugee women.

About this article

This article was originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of M: North Atlanta magazine, a publication of the Forsyth County News. To read the entire magazine, click here.

When Denise Smith’s youngest child Jesse was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer at age 13, she felt her world was crumbling.

“He fought hard, and during those next four years he taught all of us so very much,” she said.

Tragically, shortly before his 17th birthday, Jesse succumbed to the cancer and, as Denise said, “[He] traded house keys and went home to the Kingdom of God.”

Losing a child changed everything for Smith and her husband of 38 years, Art.

“We just felt like we needed to go somewhere that could utilize our resources,” she said. “And it became clear to us that ‘somewhere’ was going to be far away in another country.”

In 2004, the couple committed to a two-year mission aboard a ship that would distribute educational materials all over the world. As they prepared for the journey, they met a man who asked if they would consider instead going to Beirut to help run a mission organization in war-ravaged Lebanon. After much prayer, the Smiths agreed to go.

Arriving in Beirut, the couple immersed themselves in learning not only the language, but the culture.

“We lived in the mountains, and absolutely loved the people,” she said.

Two years came and went, and Denise and her husband stayed and continued to help the people.

“What bothered me most was that there are so many innocent people who are just trying to live their lives peacefully, but because of things they have no control over, there is no peace or stability,” she said.

Not surprisingly, women and children are particularly powerless.

“Women have no voice — and they have no power — they just want to care for their children, and provide for them, but they have such limited resources,” she said.

The Smiths stayed in Beirut until 2010, when they decided it was time to return to Georgia.

“In Beirut, I came to grips with who I am as a person. I learned so much about myself,” she said.

Coming back to America was a bit of a culture shock.

“I just prayed for God to show me what he wanted me to do with my life,” she said.

The answer came when Smith received a call asking if she could come to Clarkston, where there was a group of refugee women from the Middle East who didn’t speak English.

“There was a two-week camp for the children of refugees who were being tutored so they could begin school, and their mothers were there just standing around,” she said.

At first, Smith was just asked to speak with the women in Arabic. After a few days of visiting with them, Smith awoke one night thinking God had put the word “sewing” on her heart.

“I have always loved to sew and have been sewing my entire life, so I packed up my sewing machine and my seam ripper and asked a few friends to come along and back I went,” she said.

With no clear idea of what the future held, Smith began teaching the women how to sew. In the process, they also learned English.

“We just kept moving forward, I didn’t know what would happen,” she said.

What did happen was the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center donated garbage bags of beautiful fabric that would otherwise have been thrown away.

“We felt like we had won the lottery,” Smith said.

Wanting the women to be able to use their newfound sewing skills to earn a living, Smith decided the group would make and sell purses, wallets and handbags.

After obtaining 501c3 status, Peace of Thread officially began training and employing refugee women.

“We employ the unemployable women in vulnerable populations around our world,” Smith said.

The bags are one-of-a-kind pieces of art that are as practical as they are beautiful.

The fabrics and attention to detail are amazing. It is obvious the “artisanal threaders” take great pride in the work.

“There are so many success stories we have seen — women getting jobs, going to school to improve their English and livelihoods — it is truly heartening to see,” Smith said.

Peace of Thread would not be possible without the generous donations of supporters and the tireless efforts of volunteers.

“We have many things for volunteers to do,” she said. “You don’t have to know how to sew, although if you do, that is great.”

Peace of Thread recently moved into a new facility in Clarkston that is much larger, thus more women can be trained and employed. And Smith holds many trunk shows in the Forsyth County area.

“Getting to know these women is truly a gift and a blessing,” Smith said. “I wake up every day and am so happy I get to do what I am doing.”