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Quilting took me on a ‘great adventure’

Willmar woman:‘Pass the needle to the next generation’

It was a quiet spring afternoon, and I was running an errand after work when I happened to drive by an old church that had recently been renovated to start an after school program called the Sioux City Girls Club. Later the name would change to Girls Inc. It is a national organization for girls between the ages of 6 and 18 for after school activities.

My mind drifted back to my own childhood thinking how nice such a facility would have been back then. A place to play, learn, and be mentored would have suited me just fine. Suddenly, I had the thought that I should stop and ask for a tour of the facility. Before I could dismiss the idea I found a parking spot and found myself asking the pleasant woman at the door for a tour. She was happy to do so. There was an air of excitement and lots of activity going on. Girls were playing basketball, some were being tutored, and others were participating in a craft project.

I was disappointed to learn there was no place to sew. As a child I had a strong desire to learn how to sew, and no one close to me was able to teach me. At the age of 12 a former neighbor gifted me with a very old treadle sewing machine. She told me she knew I would have enough passion to teach myself and then the words that would change my life. “Once you know how to sew, you must pass the needle to the next generation.” That promise has taken me on a wonderful journey of great adventure and one that has enriched my life greatly.

There was no place set up to sew because there was no one to teach the girls and no sewing machines to work with. I had just received an inheritance of $750 from my late aunt’s estate. I was a single mom struggling to make ends meet and help my son get through college. The money would have paid for some textbooks, and it was a temptation to just put the whole notion out of my mind. Helen’s words, “pass the needle to the next generation” invaded my musings, and the next thing I knew, I was at Sears buying four new sewing machines. I had to come up with some additional money to complete the deal, but it was just the right way to pay tribute to my aunt.

The following week I arrived to bring the machines in, and the director and her assistant met me at the door. I set everything up, and then they asked me to teach the girls for six weeks until someone else could take over. Not prepared for their request I stammered and stuttered, but those words were still in my mind, so reluctantly I agreed. It was just for six weeks, and it would be fun. Six weeks turned into more than 20 years. I retired from my job at MidAmerican Energy Co. and moved here to Willmar, leaving the teaching to two very capable and enthusiastic friends.

Those years were filled with teaching girls to work together creating wonderful quilts that were presented in person to recipients like Barbara Bush, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the Rev. Bernice King, youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, and Della Reese. I was awarded the honor of becoming a Point of Light by President George W. Bush the night before he was elected to his second term as president. I even rode in his motorcade. Many girls passed through our little sewing room during those years, and each one received all the love and encouragement that my friends and I could give them. There were life lessons learned and skills sharpened. My goal was to teach them to work as a team, stay focused and stay in school. It was challenging and exhausting, but the most worthwhile thing I have ever done.

Frequently, when I am back in Iowa for a visit, I’ll run into former students. They tell me they still have the projects we made so many years ago. Many have college degrees because of scholarships from Girls Inc. They are grateful for the lessons they learned in our little sewing group.

When I arrived here five years ago, my husband and I had already been married five years and had been commuting on weekends. My health had failed, and I was facing numerous surgeries. It was a low point for me, and I was missing the girls back home. I asked a great-niece if she might be interested in learning to quilt, and she was. Her siblings have joined her as well as a number of other girls. They do very well at the Kandiyohi County fair each year. I always tease them that I will have to hit them up for a loan with the money they receive for their entries. Once again my days are filled to capacity with their comings and goings.

I have regained my health and just returned from Romania with a dear friend, Denise Bakker, where we teach orphaned and abandoned kids, women in shelters, and kids at risk basic sewing skills. We both agree that the work is exhausting but very satisfying and, once again, it has been a grand adventure

My purpose in writing this story is to encourage other baby boomers to use their vast amount of knowledge and skill to pass the needle, building tools, books, computers, or whatever God has put into your hand to the next generation. God asked Moses what he had in his hand, and it was a staff. He used it for good. What do you have in your hand? Everyone has something to pass along to the next generation. Use it to finish well.

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