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RANCHO ANPARA, Mexico Mothers on both sides of the border have started a small business that uses old T-shirts and other recycled fabric to create prayer flags and a line of clothing known as Rags to Britches that helps families of special needs children.

In the urban sprawl of Juarez that created Rancho Anapra, a group of women are stitching together a future for their families inside a small shop.

We can't be away from home very long, said Sofia Aleman as she cut up a white T-shirt.

Most of the women are mothers of special needs children.

People really need to make a living here, explained Siba Escobedo, who crosses the border weekly to work with the women in Mexico as part of her Inspiring Imports project.

She first started coming to Anapra nearly nine years ago.

I was invited by the Sisters of Charity to visit a community center for families with handicapped kids, Escobedo said.

Since then, she has developed strong friendships with these moms who have become unlikely entrepreneurs.

While the women cut, sew, and stamp images on fabric, a teenage girl circles the room continuously, grunting and vocalizing.

She's obviously autistic, they think, but she was just locked up, Escobedo said.

When the teen's mother died of cancer, Griselda Lopez, a neighborhood woman, took over caring for the the special needs girl named Miriam.

Lopez who works at the sewing shop also has two children of her own ages 12 and four.

I like working here a lot because I can be with my kids, said Lopez, who stopped sewing to give her youngest son Daniel a hug and a kiss.

Most parents who live in Rancho Anapra work for maquiladoras, factories that manufacture products for U.S. companies.

If you have a special needs child, you can t even work there, Escobedo said.

The bus ride to work from the community on the outskirts of Juarez can take up to an hour-and-a=half each way since it stops to pick up employees along the way.

The mothers originally planned to open a small restaurant.

Right now things are getting a little better, but in the last three years it was just totally unsafe to open even the smallest stand for anything because of the extortion, Escobedo said.

Instead, the women decided on a sewing shop.

Escobedo and her daughter Rosario sell the prayer flags and clothing made out of recycled material at the farmers market in Las Cruces, New Mexico and a tea shop in El Paso.

They started mailing some of the items to customers who live outside the area.

Nothing goes to waste, said Aleman as she handed a cut-up T-shirt to another mother sitting at a sewing machine.

The women transform the old T-shirts into prayer flags, like those that hang in Tibet with spiritual messages promoting blessings.

These flags have messages like Amor por Juarez ( Love for Juarez ) and images of hearts and healing hands.

The mothers also make clothes out of recycled fabric. Escobedo s daughter Rosario designed the Rags to Britches line, which includes colorful yoga pants.

I just like comfortable, fun colors, Rosario Escobedo said.

The mother in charge of selecting the fabric visits second-hand stores in Mexico where used clothing is sold by the pound.

There are mountains of clothes, and I have to get in there and dig the pieces I want out, said Guadalupe de Leon Rodriguez. Out of 50 pieces of fabric, I find one that works.

The mothers are also helping mend the tattered social fabric in their community, which is just beginning to recover after years of coping with violent crime and drug gangs.

Here, it s not really an option to believe in God, Escobedo said. Everyone believes in God, because that s how they got through this day.

For more information about Rags to Britches, send a message to InspiredImports@yahoo.com.

E-mail akocherga@belo.com

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