(This story first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Under the Rainbow.)
Stitch by loving stitch, skilled hands create all sorts of things from yarn and thread.
Baby blankets and dolls, gowns and pillowcases, scarves and bags are turned out by the hundreds, but so are smiles and comfort, warmth and kind gestures and close-knit friendships.
Across Mississippi, groups large and small host gatherings to stitch up personal gifts to patients they may never see and for families they may never meet. Though the recipients enjoy their handmade treasures, the seamstresses and needleworkers seem to receive the gifts of purpose and fellowship. Here are a few of their stories.
When you walk into the fellowship hall at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson, usually on Tuesdays, there is a well-organized sprawl of tables, fabric and machines, and women busy as bees making all manner of items to take to Batson Children's Hospital and other charities throughout the metro area. At the center of the hive, overseeing it all, is the queen bee, Roanoke McDonald.
Roanoke McDonald puts quilt squares in place during a meeting of the Susannah Stitchers.
Sewing is their ministry, and they are very good at it. They make silent layettes for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit who don't survive, comfort pillows for kids who have had surgery, chemo hats and pillowcases.
“We make so much stuff,” she said.
She keeps a running Excel spreadsheet of everything that goes from sewing machine to hospital. It's an extensive list.
They're in their 14th year of stitching expressions of love, beginning their journey with tiny burial gowns for babies who did not survive their premature birth.
“There were a couple of us ladies who wanted to do something because we've all had healthy grandchildren,” she said, “and it has just grown.”
The group, named for Susannah Wesley, mother of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, also makes quilts and blankets for the homeless who come to Stewpot Community Services locations. They started out making scrap quilts, but those put some wear and tear on their sewing machines. They then switched to fleece blankets.
“I made an executive decision,” she laughed.
Machines whir in the background, and she suggests moving to a quieter area.
“That's Helen,” she said, laughing. “We need to put a cushion under her machine.”
It all starts in the fabric room. Looking more like a fabric store than a spare room at a church, the space is home to more than 100 bolts of fabric in myriad colors, patterns and finishes.
“This is actually a low supply,” she said.
Bolts of fabric in the Susannah Stitchers’ storage room sit waiting to be cut and sewn into place.
The bolts are as organized as volumes in a library, and McDonald can put her hands on not only a bolt of a particular color but also on its coordinating fabrics.
“We have about 30 ladies on the membership roll,” she said. The Susannah Stitchers stay in touch when not sewing at the church, filling needs soon after they are discovered. “I tell everybody I'm a firefighter. I put out fires as they come up,” McDonald said.
McDonald stays in touch with Angela Compere, volunteer coordinator at Batson Children's Hospital, to see what the needs are, how many, of what and when.
Then sewing machine foot pedals, similar to an accelerator pedals on cars, are pressed toward the floor.
This day, they are making comfort pillows for kids coming out of surgery.
Susannah Stitchers work together, but not every bee in this whirring hive does the same job. Some volunteers cut the material while others assemble and pin patterns to fabric. Some cut, some stitch and some iron. Everything comes together in the end.
Karen Hill, left, and Helen Goldman look over yarns to hand-tie prayer quilts for Batson Children’s Hospital patients during a sewing day at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson.
“We got the sweetest card from a lady who had a child at Batson Children's Hospital who received a pillowcase,” McDonald said. “She commented about how sweet it was and how it cheered the child up. It made it all worth it.”
Each pillowcase is individually bagged with a card that says, “Made by Susannah Stitchers,” “so they know where it came from.”
Meeting and sewing with the Susannah Stitchers brightens the days of the givers, too. Roanoke said it is what many of them need in their lives.
“When you get to retirement age, you only want to watch so many soap operas,” said McDonald in an interview with Jackson television station WLBT last year. “And this is a way of keeping our minds busy and our hands busy. And the fellowship, oh my goodness! This is a lot cheaper than nerve pills, as my mother-in-law used to call them. Our husbands need us to go somewhere. I just can't imagine sitting around with a talent and just letting it go to waste.”
Williamsville Baptist Church
Intense discussions were going on in an activity room at Batson Children's Hospital. At the center was Luellen McPhail, a child life specialist who coordinates in-kind donations for patients.
Measurements and patterns, logistics and washing instructions are among the topics for discussion. What works and what doesn't. Thin straps on crocheted telemetry bags that hold heart monitors tend to cut into kids' shoulders. Buttons are not allowed.
It's all part of developing patterns that can be replicated time and time again.
McPhail with some of the items donated to Batson Children's Hospital.
Debbie Davis of Williamsville Baptist Church in Kosciusko started out creating blankets for cancer patients.
“At church, when I gave my testimonial about the blankets, I had people asking me how they could do it, too.”
She started in December 2010, after her husband, Johnny Davis, died from colon cancer.
“I was constantly crocheting, doing the big afghans,” she said.
As she got to know the other cancer patients during her husband's battle, there was one in particular who was memorable.
“I just could not get over how much pain she was in and her family didn't support her,” she said. “She couldn't see her kids.”
We just didn't realize, she said, “how fortunate, if you can say that with cancer, we were.”
“I enjoy doing things for others,” she said. “I wanted to find my purpose here.”
Their work sessions are get-togethers among friends. They speak of their relatives and update each other on personal news, speaking jubilantly about one who survived cancer, using words like “hero” and “miracle.”
“When they came up and wanted to crochet,” she said of friends Theresa Shields, Tammy Beall, Sally Rodgers and Jerri Harkness, “it really blessed me, and I love them all.”
Debbie Davis of Williamsville Baptist Church hugs a piglet-themed crocheted telemetry bag designed to hold a heart monitor. Looking on is hospital school educator Luellen McPhail, right.
In Madison County, homemakers, mostly retirees now, have been making therapy dolls, baby blankets, bags and pillowcases “for years and years,” said Mary Jane Boutwell. “We started when funds were being raised for the Ronald McDonald House to be built.”
The Ronald McDonald House in Jackson opened in 1989, meaning that, for just over 27 years, Madison County Homemaker Volunteers have been helping young patients at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
They are one of the many Mississippi Homemaker Volunteers groups in the state, said Vivian Moore of Carthage, state Mississippi Homemaker Volunteers president.
“So many people don't realize how much volunteer work the Mississippi Homemaker Volunteers do,” said Moore. “They think we just meet and quilt.”
The groups work on projects for Batson Children's Hospital as well as for causes that, for some of the clubs, are closer to home, such as holding bake sales to raise funds for bingo prizes in nursing homes.
Boutwell is quick to say that the Madison County group likes to delegate. “We want to involve other groups, churches, 4-H, homemakers, retirees - if you can sew a straight seam, you can make a baby blanket.”
And now, with patterns for no-sew blankets and scarves using polar fleece fabric, even the straight seam isn't a must.
The best part, Boutwell said, is that working with Batson Children's Hospital is “a personal experience.”
“They work with us,” she said of volunteer coordinators and child life specialists at the hospital. “They tell us what they need and how it is used, and we work to give back.”
Therapy dolls, she said, had been discussed among homemakers and hospital staff, and together they found a pattern that worked well for everyone. Boutwell said her group has worked to find a variety of shades of fabric for the dolls, “because children come in all colors.”
Their next group sewing day will be in the heat of summer, in August, she said. The sewing machines' whir will be heard above the air conditioning.
Skillful hands create heirlooms at Christ United Methodist Church, where seamstresses volunteer each week to sew gifts for Batson Children’s Hospital patients and families.
Ryan’s Case for Smiles
Betty Grant meets with volunteers from her church, Crossgates United Methodist in Brandon, to turn brightly patterned cotton into colorful pillowcases for a cause.
Ryan's Case for Smiles, a national program with volunteer coordinators in each state, was inspired by a mother's work to create fun pillowcases for the room of her son, who was battling cancer at the time. In Mississippi, the group is coordinated by Jennifer Haggard of Columbus.
“We're fairly new in Mississippi,” said Haggard, who moved to Mississippi from Florida with her husband John.
“I was working in real estate,” she said, “and when the move came up, I asked, 'What can I do?' My husband said, 'Retire!' I said, 'What? I can't do that!'”
Some time later, a friend showed her an article about Ryan's Case for Smiles, and “my heart went right to it,” she said. After finding out that there wasn't a Mississippi coordinator, “I thought, 'Why can't I do that?'”
Coordinators for the group pair up volunteer groups from around the state to pool pillowcase donations to have enough for a hospital, about 100.
Colorful fabrics go from bolt to quilt.
Working in patterns and colors that are a hit with the kids is a must, Haggard said. “Last year, everyone wanted 'Frozen,'” she said, and Elsa, Anna and Olaf are popular again this year. “Plus the 'Star Wars' prints!”
Volunteers from a variety of cities and clubs have worked to stitch some 635 pillowcases for Batson patients in 2015, Grant said. The 120 chapters of Ryan's Case for Smiles have created more than 1 million pillowcases for pediatric patients all over the world since 2007.
Often, the sewing happens during quarterly work days, Grant said. Others help by donating fabric and notions or funding.
To help, call Haggard at (662) 570-8381. To make a financial donation, visit caseforsmiles.org.
Call before you stitch
Those wanting to create handmade treasures for patients at Batson Children's Hospital can reach Luellen McPhail at (601) 815-8596 or by email at email@example.com.