In a crowded meeting room in a Zachary church, volunteers are using denim, flannel, cotton, yarn and, recently, multiple layers of hot pink tulle to help those in need.
The compassion shown by those volunteers leaves the church, the community, the country and then the continent in the form of the practical sewing projects produced by Friends and Needles.
For a little more than two years, Friends and Needles has operated as an outreach and charity organization with Zachary United Methodist Church, although membership is open to anyone who wants to join.
“Our mission is to use our God-given talents to help our church, community, state, nation and the world,” said spokeswoman Margaret Harmon. “Members come together once a week to sew, crochet, knit and craft for others while producing great fellowship and friendship among the members.”
Retired educator Donna Long can point out members’ names and explain the vast variety of products but is hesitant to call herself the leader. When a vote is taken, however, she is found guilty of taking charge and putting something lovely in place.
“I taught school 42 years and when I retired, I went to the preacher and I said, 'I have a lot of talents that I can use ... can I start a sewing group?' ” Long said. “The first meeting drew 25 people, and they started meeting and this is what we have come out with.”
A stroll through the products shows a variety of projects all servicing an outreach of charitable function. “We do things for our church, community, our country and our world,” Long said.
Close to home, Friends and Needles have provided christening gowns and blankets for families in the church, a variety of products like pillowcases and bibs to local nursing home patients, and prayer shawls for the sick and elderly. The group even took on the massive tasks of repairing the giant American flag that flies over the cemetery at Port Hudson Historic Site.
The projects are functional and not just ornamental. The fidget blankets, or busy blankets, involve different sight, textures and colors and are designed to help Alzheimer’s patients keep their hands and moving. Another type of blanket made of flannel is put in baskets from the church’s care team. It doesn’t go to the person in the hospital, it goes to the caregiver, the person sitting with the sick person. It includes socks and other items that come in handy when sitting with a sick loved one.
The hot pink tulle noted earlier was used by Angie Robin. Robin sported a layered hot pink formal gown donated and altered by Friends and Needles member Cheryl Russell to the Night to Shine held at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center on Feb. 9. Robin was one of 210 guests who participated in the local Night to Shine, a promlike event for residents with special needs.
Friends and Needles donated and altered 10 formal dresses, six tuxedos and a cheese and fruit tray for the caregivers of the attendees.
The group works as a team with some specialists doing different parts of the puzzle. Another retired teacher, Kathleen Hopewell, humbly says she can’t sew, but another member quickly added that Hopewell serves a valuable purpose outside the sewing machine. “She’s got an eye for what goes together, and she’s got a lot of common sense,” the member said of Hopewell.
Brenda Obeidinski is an organizing specialist or “the pusher.” She collects, cuts, stores and distributes items and serves as the guardian of the supply closet.
“We are trying to help in the Veterans Home, and we helped to repair the U.S. flag that flies over Port Hudson cemetery,” she said. “It took a number of machines and a lot of women to figure out how you get through that fabric, but we all band together and bat around suggestions until we come up with a solution. That’s pretty much the way this group works.”
Olga Wilson is another specialist. She crochets prayer shawls for the elderly, sick or caregivers. She has completed 86 shawls in the last year, and one of them landed around the shoulders of Meryal Odom, a Friends and Needles member who lost her husband last year.
“When my husband passed in June, I was given a prayer shawl, and when I wrapped that around me, that was such a wonderful feeling,” Odom said. “I could not believe the warmth. It was like you could just feel the love that was there.”
Items that stay in Louisiana include pillowcases for the War Veterans Homes, pants for veterans and homeless individuals, pillowcases for the United Methodist Church Children’s home, and a variety of blankets for specific purposes.
The distribution of items to Africa is perhaps one of the group’s most amazing feats in just two years functioning. They send baby blankets, hats for newborns, shorts, dresses and menstrual cycle aids, just to name a few.
Education and insight comes from U.S. missionary couples assigned to Zambia. From corresponding with them, the group discovers more about the specific needs and how to best meet them.
One such discovery led to the mass production of “A Day for Girls Kits.” Friends and Needles were told that many girls in that particular region only had cardboard and leaves to use during their menstrual cycle. As a result, they miss, on average, 33 days of school each year.
Friends and Needles pulls out a powerhouse specialist to create a pile of dresses for little girls in Africa. Calista Smith not only makes 98 percent of the dresses the group sends to Africa, but she accomplishes it after losing a large amount of her functional vision to macular degeneration. Team members cut out the materials into pieces and, using mostly her hands and years of sewing experience memories, Smith completes more than 200 dresses in a year.
Smith says these projects help motivate her as she loses her sight. “The doctor told me he didn’t think it was safe for me to drive anymore,” she said. “I’m not going to be one of these old crotchety old women who won’t give up the car keys.”
“I live alone and when I get done with my chores, I go sew,” Smith said. “I’m so grateful to have gotten in with this group because I don’t know what I did when I wasn’t sewing.”
“This really give me a purpose,” Smith explained. “Something that makes me feel like I am contributing to something good.”