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W+S Artisan: Choti Renu

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WORK+SHELTER trains and hires women in New Delhi who struggle financially. These are some of their stories.

Choti Renu

In 2013, a tiny woman walked through the door to our New Delhi office and inquired about a job. We immediately connected and began sharing stories. She had recently migrated from one of the poorest provinces in India. Within the first hours of meeting, our team decided to visit her home to verify her financial need.

48 hours later, we're flying down a dirt road in a cycle rickshaw on the outskirts of New Delhi. Suddenly we see Renu walking along the side of the road. We stop the rickshaw and excitedly greet her, asking her to join us for the ride to her house - but she insists she's fine walking and apologizes for our inconvenience. I'm immediately stunned by the selflessness and resilience of this woman. She finally accepts our offer, and the bumpy journey to her home continues.

The rickshaw finally comes to a stop outside a concrete building that appears to be home to many families. We shuffle through the open entrance into a room just large enough for us to stand in. There's no bathroom or toilet, no kitchen or sink - just one small faucet protruding from the wall and 3 small girls huddling together on a cot in the corner. I greet the girls, “Aap kaisii haen?” (“How are you?” in Hindi), and nearly faint when one of her daughters responds with, “I’m fine” in clear, perfect English.

The girls were well educated, a rare trait with poor families in India. (Many families can’t afford the cost of a school uniform for one child, let alone three.) I quickly discover Renu had been skipping meals to feed and educate her daughters. The little bit of food in the home, just a bit of bread, she offers to us as guests. This generous, selfless, determined woman amazed me, and in that moment I decide to hire her as my next WORK + SHELTER employee.

"Renu had been skipping meals to feed and educate her daughters."

Before Renu first started at WORK + SHELTER, she had never used a sewing machine before. We called her “Choti Renu” or “Little Renu” because of how tiny she was. When I first met her, I thought Renu was a child from her small frame. Renu's dedication to her children had left her body with the signs of a life of malnutrition.

Over the coming days, months, and years Renu worked hard and learned to sew. She mastered the craft of using a sewing machine and making patterns. She moved into a new house with a bathroom and she started gaining weight. Once, after accidentally sewing through her finger and going to the hospital, she demanded that she come back to work - little did I know she was helping to throw me a surprise birthday party! Even with a freshly bandaged finger, she lifted me up in the air and spun me around.

4 years later, Renu is thriving as one of WORK + SHELTER’s top seamstresses. She has also started her own small business: a chai stall in the morning market. At our center we joke that Choti Renu has become “Moti Renu,” or “Big Woman” in Hindi. She always smiles happily when we call her that.

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