Red Cross Sewing Ladies

Volunteers Create Thousands of Hand-sewn Stockings for Children
Volunteers needed to sew bright red Christmas stockings for children. The request from DHS arrives at Oklahoma City’s office of the American Red Cross each year, accompanied by bolts and bolts of red netting.

Members of the Red Cross Sewing Ladies – the only Red Cross group of its kind in the nation — start cutting and sewing in August to make delivery in October. They have only two months to create about 240 stockings from each bolt. In 2005, they presented DHS with 4,607 Christmas stockings, each one sewn with green thread, decorated with a bow of green yarn, labeled with the ladies’ unique label, and bound in packs of 20 for distribution.

Volunteers for DHS (Department of Human Services) will fill each bright red stocking with candy, a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, a bar of soap and washcloth, a comb and a pair of socks, a pair of gloves or mittens and a stocking cap. On top, they will attach a toy, which could be a car or a stuffed animal or a coloring book, and present the stockings to children who are in DHS custody at Christmas.

After the “stocking rush” passes, the Red Cross Sewing Ladies could return to their regular projects, except they were never put on hold. The women continuously sew items for DHS children and for patients in the VA Hospital. People may think that amount of stitching is done by a large group of volunteers. However, it’s quite the opposite: four dedicated ladies, plus a part-timer, make every item.

The women meet on the last Thursday morning of every month, except December, at the Red Cross headquarters in Oklahoma City. In those few hours, they stuff fabric animals they’ve stitched by machine at home, close them up with hand-stitching, sew on a bow and their label, then start counting. They send 100 stuffed animals at a time to DHS – every month. Although they skip a meeting, they still sew to make sure they have 100 animals ready to deliver for December as well.

“I’ve been doing this forever,” volunteer seamstress Dessie Whitfield said. “We’ve always had a sewing ladies group here.” Dessie is the senior member of the current group at 16 years. Carlene Pearce has 15 years with the group, Linda Smith comes in at six years and Mercedes Humphrey has volunteered for three years.

All but Dessie report their time to RSVP — the Retired Senior Volunteer Program – which keeps track of hours that retired seniors volunteer. Carlene, Linda and Mercedes report sewing anywhere from 20 to 60 hours each month at home, in addition to working together at the Red Cross office on their Thursday morning stuffing-and-counting day. Dessie puts in even more. The group also pins and cuts out fabric that day before going home to sew and label. Mercedes and Dessie’s husbands sometimes help cut out patterns at home.

But more volunteers are always welcome. The women stress that volunteers do not need to be seamstresses, nor do they even have to know how to sew a stitch.

The program needs volunteers to stuff the small animals after the ladies sew them. The basic tasks of measuring and cutting 100 identical ribbon pieces or tying them into simple bows take time. Non-sewers could do this while someone else hand-stitches the bows to the necks of stuffed animals, a decorative task easier than sewing on a button. A non-sewer could cut out pattern pieces after only a moment or two of instruction from the experienced core group. With additional help like this on the last Thursday morning of the month, the four sewing ladies would have more time to actually sew, they say.

Besides the stuffed animals and Christmas stockings, they make small blankets for lap throws, “diddy bags” and comfort pillows for VA patients. Lap throws keep knees and legs warm, especially for patients in wheelchairs; diddy bags hold combs, toothbrushes, toothpaste and small personal items together; and comfort pillows are aptly named for patients to hold to their chests after surgery. Needing to cough, or being made to cough, after surgery sometimes requires nerves of steel, and a small pillow is a comfort. Some pillows include a strap sewn on the back, making it easier for a weakened patient to hold.

In addition, the ladies sew drawstring bags, slightly larger than pillowcases, to hold children’s personal items when they are picked up by authorities for transport to the DHS Abused Children’s Center. The bags hold a change of clothes for the child, small personal items and one favorite toy, the only things children can take with them when they leave home. With each drawstring bag, the sewing ladies also send a new child-sized blanket or quilt and a small comfort pillow.

Fabric, trim and sewing notions are donated for the volunteer sewing program. But the women say they never have enough stuffing; bags of it have to be purchased periodically.

The women seldom receive thanks for all their hours of work; they never get to shake the hand of a grateful patient or see the smiles and eyes of children who receive their hand-sewn gifts. But this small group of spirited ladies continues to cut out, sew, stuff, label and package for delivery thousands of items each year without any form of payment.
“Oh, no,” they say, then chuckle. “We get paid – in muffins and doughnuts.”

Each woman receives a free muffin or doughnut every month for their thousands of hand-crafted items. Sound lopsided? The Red Cross Sewing Ladies call it a good deal.

To volunteer or donate call the American Red Cross of Central Oklahoma at (405) 228-9500.

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