Whitmer signs distracted driving law, goes into effect June 30

Michigan nonprofit’s sewing efforts go beyond clothes

Kalea Hall
Battle Creek Enquirer

Battle Creek — It started with a group of people who wanted to give back to needy children in the area by sewing clothes for them.

In January 1887, that group had its first community dance fundraiser. They raised $232.

That was the start of Charitable Union, a Battle Creek nonprofit that provides free clothing, shoes, household items and essential products to those in need.

But sewing still happens here. Lots of sewing.

“It just continued on,” Executive Director Teresa Allen told the Battle Creek Enquirer.

The “original sewers” of the community, as they are known, sew a lot more than clothes.

Inside the Charitable Union gift shop in Battle Creek, the sewing efforts are on full display in the quilts, star-shaped baby buntings, handbags, “scrubbies,” pot holders, trash bags, bowl cozies, mittens, pillows and a laundry list of other items.

Behind these items is a group of volunteer women, many former teachers, who have a penchant for sewing, have sewn all their lives and are using their talents to give back.

Their efforts have paid off. When the shop started 15 years ago, sales brought in $6,000 to help fulfill the nonprofit’s mission. Today, the gift shop’s sales contribute significantly more and make up about 20 percent, about $86,000, of the $433,000 operating budget.

The revenue allows them to purchase items the Union may not receive as donations.

“They (the sewers) are amazing,” said Allen, noting that by no means is she a part of this group.

“I am the kid that barely passed home economics class in the sewing section,” she said. “I had an A in everything in home economics, but I had to make a sweatshirt and I just kept sewing every opening shut. To pass, I had to promise (the teacher) I would never own a sewing machine.”

Allen doesn’t own any sewing machines, but she works in an office with a lot of them and the talented people behind them.

Some of the sewers include Mary Smith-Stokes, Ruth Rabbitt, Teresa Ballard, Jeri Ellerthorpe, Jenny Evans and Shirley Paulson.

Rabbitt, 95, is a quilt top maker everyone admires and knows around town.

“I have a Ruth Rabbitt (quilt) in my living room,” Evans said.

But Rabbitt doesn’t make her perfectly coordinated quilt patterns for admiration. In fact, the admiration embarrasses her.

“It keeps my mind active,” she said. “It really does. I always have something to do.”

Rabbitt, a retired teacher, has been a Charitable Union volunteer for more than 30 years.

“It’s a wonderful organization,” she said.

Rabbitt makes the patterns on top of the quilts and brings them to the Union where other sewers add the quilt’s backing. “I am always astounded at the results,” she said.

Smith-Stokes, a former home economics teacher, makes a variety of items for the Union’s shop including the star-shaped baby buntings, baby bibs, pin cushions, jewelry bags and tea bag holders. She also works in the gift shop setting up displays.

“Initially I loved the concept that this organization gave things to those in need at no cost. I was just very taken by that,” she said. “It gives me goosebumps to know that I make a difference.”

Ballard is the bag lady. The retired teacher makes bags for trash to hang in the car, totes, purses, yoga mat bags and wallets. She also does some of the quilt tops and finishes any unfinished donated quilts the Union receives.

“I’ve just always sewn,” Ballard said. “There was a sewing machine in the dining room and we were supposed to use it. We sewed all of our own clothes growing up. It’s always good when it sells, because it feels like you’ve accomplished something.”

Ellerthorpe, who’s also a retired teacher, is not only a sewer but she’s a Barbie restorer. She takes older Barbie dolls, cleans them up and dresses them up with handmade doll clothes. The dolls are given out for free in the free shop at the Union.

“I hit a goal this year: 50,” she said, proudly.

Paulson has served as a volunteer at the Union for 25 years. She’s known for her potato bags, which make cooking potatoes in the microwave even faster, and ‘scrubbies” for scrubbing the grease off dishes.

“I think if they (people) come down here and see what we have they would be very impressed,” she said.

Evans is another long-serving volunteer who ran the gift shop and started making many of the products sold in the gift shop.

“I made mittens; I was the mitten lady,” she said. “Last year, I was the pumpkin lady. I made a lot of quilts, too. I love it. I love to sell stuff. If I see it going out the door I’m like, ‘Yes, I sold another one.’”

The sewers have a knack for figuring out what to do with donated clothing and other items that cannot be given away. Those sweaters and pumpkins Evans’ made and designed were made from old sweaters she recycled.