On the Bridge: Alfred Enchill unites family and neighbors
PITTSFIELD -- Alfred Enchill believes family is the fabric of life, but he also knows family and community are interwoven.
Born in Ghana, he was 25 years old, married and in business hauling bulk mail for the postal service when he immigrated to Bridgeport, Conn, in 1988. Eventually, he made his way to the Berkshires, where he and his wife opened their own business, Elegant Stitches, in Pittsfield and settled down to raise their four sons.
"My wife designs clothes, and she used to make garments from traditional African cloth and then take them to trade shows and fairs," said Enchill, explaining how the pair came to start Elegant Stitches. "There was a company in New York City that was buying some of her clothes, but one day when we made a surprise visit we found they were just taking the designs and mass producing them."
Out of frustration, the Enchills decided to go into business for themselves and started manufacturing clothes and doing custom embroidery in the basement of their home.
"The embroidery sold well, and we realized there wasn't another embroidery business in town, so we started one. Three years later we moved it from our basement to the corner of First and Fenn streets into a retail store, and we bought more equipment," he said.
Business was going well until Feb. 7, 2004.
"That's when the story gets better," he said, laughing. "Someone torched the building -- an arsonist."
They lost just about everything.
"But it was also when we saw the people of Pittsfield show real generosity and affection," he said, recalling the outpouring of support from the community in the wake of the devastation.
"People offered trucks the fire department, the police department, even our bank My banker was the first person to call to tell me ‘if there's anything you need.' And the kids' principal sent food. It was really something. Our phone was ringing off the hook. We got notes from people we didn't even know."
He was offered a space on Tyler Street to relocate and given three months rent free as he was getting back on his feet.
"We stayed there six years before we bought this place," said Enchill.
But Enchill didn't wait six years before he started giving back.
In 2005, a year after the fire, he and other community members founded the United Africans of the Berkshires, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping newer immigrants assimilate more easily.
"Things went much smoother for me than for the average person who immigrates," said Enchill, noting that when he arrived in the late 1980s, he had an uncle who had been in the country already for a decade.
"When I first moved [to the the Berkshires], there were only four African families. Now there's so many I don't know them all. When people come in, many times they come in blind. They know they need documents and inoculations, but there can be real culture clashes, and all of that comes into play."
Cultural and religious differences can seem trivial in the abstract, but often in practice they can be upsetting. Even something as simple as an illness can cause some consternation.
"From time to time someone will get sick, or have a baby, and every time an African is admitted to the hospital everyone goes in to see the people. Everyone, not just immediate family. It's how we do. Family is the community."
And the saying "It takes a village to raise a child?" That's something Africans find most difficult to do in America.
"In Ghana you can leave your child at home and not worry -- you could leave them and know the neighbors would be there. You can't do that here, even when they are teenagers. It's too scary."
While that is one aspect of Ghana Enchill misses, he also realizes that his non-African neighbors miss that sense of safety as well.
"The culture draws you into that element," he said. "We all struggle to find time, and one income can't do it. I tell people all the time: Don't cut corners with your kids. To get the right results you have to be there. The timeframe you have with them is so short. The fabric of the family gets pulled apart, but it's gradual. When you realize it, it's often too late."
This column is a collaboration between Berkshires Week and Multicultural Bridge to encourage voices from all backgrounds in these pages. For more information, visit www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.