After 20-some years of sewing clothes for homeless children, the Helping Hands Sewing Group has noticed some changes.
Fabrics have gotten thinner and contain more polyester than they used to. What little ones like to wear has changed. Volunteer seamstresses have come and gone. The group’s formidable founder, former social worker, gerontologist and activist Betty Plank, died in 2012.
“Some of us move. Some of us get old. Some of us couldn’t make it down the stairs,” said Sandy Hubbard.
The group comprises eight primarily retired, senior women who have the free time to sew Thursdays in the basement at St. Luke’s San Lucas Episcopal Church in Vancouver. The large church hosts all sorts of groups from narcotics anonymous to single seniors to clutterers anonymous.
“This is really a niche ministry,” said St. Luke’s rector, the Rev. Jaime Case.
No one would think to sew outfits for homeless children unless they had that particular skill to meet that specific need, he said. The church pays for machine maintenance and bought the group a serger, which sews seams, trims and finishes edges all at the same time.
Helping Hands occupies a room in the basement, just down the hall from an overnight women’s shelter. Fabric, sewing machines, cutting tables and other odds and ends that go into making kids clothes fill up the space. The group focuses on clothes sizes 2 to 8.
“After they get older, they want to wear what their friends are wearing,” said Julie Love.
Fabric gets donated by congregants or other sewing groups that can’t use heavy fabrics, such as the local chapter of Project Linus, which makes blankets for children in need. Volunteers might spot a deal or buy fabric from Goodwill, and gift cards are occasionally donated to replenish scissors and thread.
When a fabric warehouse closed in Portland, a volunteer loaded up their minivan with giant rolls of fabric, some six feet tall, that would’ve otherwise ended up in the trash. Instead, apparel made from this fabric ends up at Share’s Fromhold Service Center and is distributed to family shelters. Last year, Helping Hands made 918 garments.
Families staying in Share’s shelters or transitioning from homelessness to housing can request needed clothing from their case managers.
“We are thankful for groups like St. Luke’s Helping Hands that come together with a creative effort to support our friends and neighbors here in Clark County,” said Molly Evjen, Share’s director of volunteers and community resources.
Kathy Sluniz, Share’s lead donation warehouse volunteer, packs and prepares items to go out to shelter clients, including Helping hands’ hand-sewn wears, which she said Share’s been receiving for a while.
“To picture the little ones receiving these brightly colored, happy and handmade clothes, is a joy,” Sluniz said. “Store-bought are good too, but these are just so special, made with hands of love. We are so grateful to the women that faithfully sew them and share with us.”
Many of the Helping Hands women have been sewing since junior high and offer a wealth of knowledge to newcomers. Shaune Kelly joined the group after reading a blurb about it in The Columbian that said they could teach people.
“To make a T-shirt where you could attach a collar, I’d never done that. That was great,” she said. “From being here, I gained enough courage to where I was altering my pants.”
Hubbard said she’s learned to do a rolled hem and figure out the gathering setting on her sewing machine. She also joined about a decade or so ago after reading about it in the paper. She had recently moved from the East Coast.
“I wanted to get involved in the community, and I wanted to meet some friends. This has been ideal for me,” she said. “We share the same kind of values and ideas, and we want to contribute to the community.”
They always take a break to have lunch together.
Most of the patterns come from “Kwik-Sew’s Sewing for Children” and “Kwik-Sew’s Sewing for Toddlers” – both published in the 1990s before the group formed. But Love says they try to follow current trends.
“We asked them (Share), you know, ‘what are the kids wearing? What did they like that we’ve made?’” she said.
Boys like long athletic shorts and girls like leggings. Typically, the volunteers sew two-piece outfits. Love has a knack for combining fabrics; recently she made a striped shirt from fabric scraps. Another volunteer takes oversized men’s button-up shirts and turns them into dresses. It can be cheaper to buy extra-large mens’ T-shirts and cut them up to make a couple of children’s shirts.
“None of us have yet to run into a child wearing something we recognize,” Kelly said. “It would just be too neat, but it’s never happened.”
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