Elder sewists of Flint nonprofit 'Let’s Sew for Kids' are hidden gems in the community

Gray Matters is produced in partnership with Valley Area Agency on Aging (VAAA) and focuses on our aging population and the people who care for them.

FLINT, Michigan — In north Flint, retired elder sewists gather at the former Northwestern High School to handcraft and donate diaper bags stuffed with amenities that new, young moms may need for their newborn babies. The 15-20 volunteers are over age 65 and donate their time and skills to the non-profit organization, Let’s Sew for Kids (LSFK). They gather twice weekly to ‘sit and sew and learn,’ said founding member Suzette Fraley, a retiree of GM Fisher One. 

Sue Townsend (member since 2012), a retired school librarian, designs handmade diaper bags that double as tote bags for student moms. Each one is stuffed with items handmade by LSFK volunteers, including receiving blankets, a decorative quilt, taggie blanket, burp cloths, outfits, flannel bibs, and knitted hats. 

‘These ladies do a beautiful job,’ said Rosie Ray-Henderson (member since 2012), a retired paraprofessional in the Flint Community Schools (FCS). “It is better than store-bought. To me, it’s perfect.’ Ray-Henderson is a former Flint fashion designer who once had her own fashion line for adults and children. 

“The fabrics that are for babies and children are so cute and it’s so neat to see them made up,’ said Deianna Bower (member since 2012), a retired caterer and dressmaker who once had her own line of little girls’ dresses, wedding, and bridesmaids’ gowns made to order. Today, she sews exclusively for LSFK. 

Most members began sewing as children or youth in home economics classes or were taught at home by mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. From the 1960s onward, nearly all the volunteers attended or taught adult enrichment classes, housed by FCS and organized by the Michigan Bishop Sewing Council (MBSC), established in Flint and statewide in 1969. Let’s Sew for Kids (est. 2000s) and its previous iteration, Rainbow Sewing (est. 1960s), became branches of MBSC. The volunteers were led by sewing teacher Sue Giampetroni until her death in 2018. 

Giampetroni’s legacy lives on in her former students Jane Lee, Fraley, and Bower, the three recognized leaders of LSFK. They partner with Head Start, FCS, and a variety of social services and nonprofit organizations in Flint. One is the Stork’s Nest, est. by Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated, based at Southwestern High School.

Hand-knit mittens await delivery to preschool and kindergarten classrooms. (Sherrema A. Oom-Dove | Flintside) Coordinator Trishanda Williams, said, “I am so happy to be in this wonderful partnership with Let’s Sew for Kids. These are individuals who take time out of their day to sew these baby bags for new mothers, who are so excited to receive them. They [LSFK] even donated hats and mittens.”

In 2022-23 alone, LSFK donated approximately 30 filled diaper bags, 30 naptime blankets, 505 fleece/knitted hat-and-mitten sets, and 100 ‘emergency’ pants to their community partners on behalf of new moms, newborns, and preschoolers in Flint. Some learned new skills as volunteers for LSFK. Helen McGhee (member since 2012), a retired dental hygienist, said she was glad to learn how to insert a zipper.

Ray-Henderson said she learned quilting. Joanne Wahl (member since 2008), a retired teacher, said she had never made fleece mittens before joining. Marie Bechtel (member since 2011), a former nurse, said she learned how to sew ruffling on outfits for newborns. 

Lee said she appreciates this chance to ‘pay forward’ what was given to her. One of twelve children, she said, ‘We were poor,’ and grateful when she had a hat and mittens for wintry days. As a teacher, Wahl often saw children without these necessities. “To know that we’re helping children have their heads [and hands] covered and be warm and safe in the winter - that feels good,” she said.

Marcia Kramer (member since 2012), recognized as one of the main quilters, said, “In days gone by, there were quilting bees and sewing circles to welcome new mothers and help women with their tasks.” Bower said, “We form friendships at the sewing center. It’s a good group of ladies from different cities. We are our own little community.” Bechtel said, “It makes me feel fulfilled. I enjoy the company of the other women, and I’ve learned tips to help me sew better.” Kathleen Dockter (member since 2013), said, “It’s fun when people share projects that they’re working on. We like show and tell!” 
Rosie Ray-Henderson holds fleece hats and mittens. “I coordinate colors and embellish with a button to make the flower pop!” she exclaimed. (Sherrema A. Oom-Dove | Flintside)
Sara Wascher and Mary Prchlik (members since 2013) are each 90 years old and the eldest active members of LSFK. Prchlik said that she knits a pair of mittens a day while Wascher said that she knitted more than 100 hats during the summer. She credited LSFK for providing her with a sense of purpose. “It helps me tremendously,” she said. “I should thank everybody else for letting me do it!” 

Volunteers said that they most appreciate the leaders’ patient instruction and how well-organized the operation is. Lois Adamson (member since 2015), said, “I respect the leaders because they’ve always been respectful and patient with our questions.”

Echoing this, Bechtel said, “They have high standards of quality; everything is made to perfection.” McGhee said, “All the tools - sewing machines, fabrics, everything - are there. All you do is sit down, select a project you want to work on and get started.” Fraley, one of two fabric cutters, said, “We use the scraps; we don’t waste anything and try to utilize every piece.” 

They were unanimous that LSFK has a dire need for volunteers of all ages with basic skills (or more) in sewing and knitting, as well as donations of funds, fabric, and yarn. Elaine Wischmeyer (member since 2009), a retired teacher, said, “If you have any kind of skill at all connected with sewing, you would be welcome.” Dockter said, “Not just people to work, but [who bring] new ideas, knowledge, and experience.”

“It’s the love and passion that they have in sewing and you can see it in their work,” said Williams. “I love this program and I pray that they continue. They are hidden gems.” 

Let’s Sew for Kids meets on Mondays and Tuesdays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Northwestern High School, with a shared potluck lunch. For further information, please call (810) 736-1375.
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