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East County Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019 8 months ago

A special Thanksgiving for two Lakewood Ranch seamstresses who work at BSwanky

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

When I think back to Thanksgivings over the years, I don't remember pondering the true spirit of the holiday.

I grew up in a farming community in upstate New York, but we didn't spend the day praying for a good harvest or that the cows would produce more milk.

It was more about being thankful my grandmother didn't make putrid-smelling Brussels sprouts for our holiday meal or that my father would want to watch the football game since we only had one TV. I would say he ruled the remote, but believe it or not, there was no remote then. You actually had to walk to the TV to change the channel.

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

Thanksgiving was a time to see family members who you hadn't seen in a year, or more. People would pile in, eat, and pile out. It was a time to talk about Aunt Clarabelle's bad hip or cousin Albert finding a transmission for his 1969 Ford Shelby.

For me, Thanksgiving always has been about the small stuff.

The 2020 version of the holiday will be quite a different for East County's Limu Severino and Kathy Reategui.

The two work as seamstresses at BSwanky, a business that makes designer handbags just south of Fruitville Road and east of Interstate 75. It was there — Reategui four months ago and Severino eight months ago — landed a job, and some much appreciated peace.

Both are listed as permanent residents here in the United States after making the move from their home countries. Reategui, from Lima, Peru, will pursue U.S. Citizenship this coming year, while Severino, who wants to be a citizen after moving from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, hasn't lived here long enough to pursue citizenship.

They sit 10 hours a day, four days a week, and work at creating the designer handbags. It's a job that many people would find taxing, but when they sit down at Thanksgiving dinner, they will be thankful for their good fortune. They both love their jobs, their opportunities, and their home in the U.S.

According to the United Nations, more than four million Venezuelans have fled the country since political unrest escalated in 2014. Two years ago, Severino became one of them.

Kathy Reategui holds one of her favorite BSwanky designer handbags she helped to create.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is no longer accepted as the country's actual leader by many countries, including the U.S., but he controls the military. His country's economy is suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. Severino, who is 60, had good jobs working in administration for a petroleum company and making curtains for hotels in Venezuela, then everything spiraled out of control and her jobs went away.

"There is no money, no medicine, no food, no security in my country," said Severino, who lives at Echo Lake apartments in Lakewood Ranch. "I miss my family, but I don't miss Venezuela. It's terrible."

When Severino arrived in the U.S., she had trouble landing a job and cleaning homes was one of the few avenues for her to pursue. She made good money, but said she didn't feel safe doing it.

Limu Severino loves this handbag she made complete from scratch.

"To start in a new country is hard," she said. "But I do like my life now, and I like my work."

Things turned for the better for Severino when she met Gretchen Bauer, who owns BSwanky. Bauer, who supports East County charities through many donations of her designer handbags, her money and her time, has been alarmed by sweatshop type conditions that exist in her industry and she has been committed to providing her workers with a safe and reasonable environment.

As Severino put it, "My life changed. This is a safer job and Gretchen permits me to create ... such as what colors match."

She proudly held up a handbag. "I made this one, complete," she said proudly.

Reategui, 45, noted that she had picked the design for a zebra bag. 

"I am proud of this job," she said. "You don't come here if you just need a job. Gretchen permits us to participate, to give her new ideas. She permits us to grow with her.

"I get motivation here and Gretchen is like a family member who always is happy. When it comes to business, she is strict, but she is really sweet."

While certain aspects of her story are similar with Severino — she said safety is a big issue — Reategui has another reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving. The past two years she has suffered through surgeries and treatments of breast cancer but she has recovered to take the job at BSwanky.

"When I was little, my mother would let me cut fabric for dresses," she said. "Now Gretchen has let me make these unique bags. Her goal is to treat people well and she knows people who have come here have been treated poorly somewhere else."

Both said they will voice their appreciation on Thanksgiving.

Feeling safe, holding down a good job, being cancer free, I would say those things trump stinky Brussels sprouts every time.

I hope your Thanksgiving is as memorable.

Kathy Reategui and Limu Severino say they both love working at BSwanky and will be especially thankful on Thanksgiving.


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