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Former Rockford pharmacist is using her passion to treat the community

Yvonne Boose
Carolyn Davis learning how to use a modern sewing machine.

A former Rockford pharmacy has transformed from helping the community internally to something more external.

Rubens Pharmacy served the Rockford community for over 40 years. The establishment is now known as Cleta’s Stay and Sew.

The old and the new contrast the walls of this former Black-owned drugstore. The glass fixture with the words “Pharmacy” going across it is still in place but there are no prescription drug bottles behind it. Instead, there African-designed purses.

Ruben Samuel Jr. and his sister Collettia Berryhill, who goes by Cleta, ran the drugstore. Samuel died from pancreatic cancer in 2019. Berryhill said she made a promise to her ailing brother.

“I asked him ‘well, what was I to do with the building’ and he said, ‘just use it for your passion.' He said, ‘Don't stop quilting. Don’t stop sewing,” Berryhill explained. “And I said, ‘OK.’ But he said, ‘you know, we're in this neighborhood, where no one has any money.’ And I said, ‘I know that’ and he said, ‘Don't charge for those classes.’”

Berryhill is keeping her word. She’s offering free sewing classes.

Robbie Webster is taking part in a class that meets on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. She ironed her material as she prepared to make a tote bag. Webster said she heard about the class through a friend who works at the Rockford Public Library. Webster knows how to sew but said she wants to expand her skills.

Pharmacy Sign.jpg
Yvonne Boose
Collettia Berryhill giving her students Robbie Webster and Carolyn Davis instructions

“I don't know how to make a coat maybe or something like that,” she added, “but you can always pick up something. I don't know everything now.”

And some things she thought she knew, she said she found out she was doing them wrong. Webster said taking the class allows her to socialize.

Carolyn Davis is also familiar with the craft. She said she isn’t used to using modern sewing machines. Davis sat with a square piece of material and practiced the different stitches on an updated appliance.

“I've seen Collettia’s outfits. And they are so beautiful. And I – if I can make something like that, you know, machines are new, but I believe I can because I used to make my own clothes.”

Davis said that was back in the 70s. She said most of Berryhill’s clothes include African designs.

Outside of this class, Berryhill has other plans for the shop. One of them includes offering a sewing summer camp for children. And she has another passion that she wants to pass on.

“How to quilt and how you can be so creative in your quilting, and what you can make that will last for years and generations to come,” she said.

Berryhill said when she was 8, her blind grandmother taught her how to quilt.

The main source of funds from the shop has come from Berryhill’s savings. She does sell retail items in the store, but those sales are used to pay utilities. She’s also received fabric, furniture and sewing machines as gifts but she needs more support to make her full vision come to life.

“I just need donations, monetary donations, because as you can see, I have all the fabric that I need, but I just need more support," she said.

Yvonne Boose
Collettia Berryhill holding cultural tote bags she created

Davis said free sewing classes are a great opportunity for community youth.

“It would get them off the streets. It would make the young men and women -- because I think men can learn how to sew as well and benefit from this,” Davis said. “I mean, it's in an underdeveloped area.”

In addition to having a summer camp, Berryhill wants the shop to be a place where artists come to showcase their work. This includes poets.

“And I just always have been intrigued with the spoken word. I forgot about the young guy. He's a celebrity. Maybe you could help me with him. But he used to be on HBO.”

Berryhill was referring to Russell Simmons who presented “Def Poetry Jam.”

Berryhill said the pharmacy thrived because of the support of Hispanic and Black elderly in the community. One 96-year-old customer still stops by.

“She really enjoyed just being here because she used to get her prescriptions here,” Berryhill said. “And she likes the transformation, I guess. And she's brought her great, who would that be? Her great-granddaughter.”

Next month Berryhill plans to have a Black History celebration for the community. Those who attend will need to wear African attire. More information about the upcoming event and how to donate can be found on the shop’s Facebook page.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.
Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.