Church ladies have the right stuff for ill, aging

First Posted: 1/15/2009

The dining room table in Helena Herring's house is covered with fabric. Some of the material lies in a neat pile near the edge; some of it has already been cut, sewn, stuffed and adorned with a tag, ready for delivery.
The scraps of fabric have been made into stuffed animals by Herring and several of her friends from Barker United Methodist Church. There is a blue whale, a red clown, an elephant, a Scottish terrier, a long-necked giraffe, some pigs, a bear, and a red, white, blue and brown rooster.
Herring's friends -- who are known as either the Toy Makers or Friends to Friends -- mold the material and dispense the stuffed animals to Southeastern Regional Medical Center and the Southeastern Family Violence Center.
Since beginning their project in August, the ladies have given away more than 1,250 stuffed animals, many to children who are treated in the hospital's emergency room. Herring says she got the idea to make the toys last year, after she visited a Chapel Hill retirement home that did similar work.
“They have a project where they make toys for the police department,” said Herring, who is a retired nurse. “They give the toys to needy families. I got involved in that, and when I came home, I thought, 'Gee, our church ought to do something like that.' So I went to the board and asked if we could do that.”
With the board's blessing, Herring and several other women, including Annette Ivey, Nora Rogers, Alice Mears, Carlene Burns, Brenda Musselwhite and Van Floyd, began churning out stuffed animals with assembly-line efficiency.
They use discarded scraps from their own sewing rooms, as well as scraps thrown out by Fabtex Inc. in Lumberton. Often, the women buy 5-pound boxes of polyester filling from Wal-Mart to use as stuffing.
Every Tuesday, from 3 to 8 p.m., the group works like Santa's elves around Herring's dining room table. With Herring having done all of the cutting and preliminary sewing, the ladies stuff the animals and apply the tags, generally producing about 10 animals an hour.
Nursing homes, too
Annette Ivey, visiting Herring on a cloudless day last week, said the animals became so popular at the hospital that the group began distributing stuffed animals to nursing homes, as well.
“After we started doing the toys for the nursing homes, we asked if there was anything else they needed, and they started giving us suggestions on small pillows, little different-sized pillows,” Ivey said.
The group now also produces wheelchair arm covers, wheelchair bags, pillows, walker bags, lap robes and eyeglass cases. The ladies also began making “fidget aprons,” which Alzheimer's patients at the nursing homes like to wear.
Sifting through the material on her table, Herring displays a denim fidget apron adorned by zippers, beads, a stuffed blue bug and pockets made of corduroy and necktie material.
“They say you should put a material on there that feels different,” Herring said. “They just sit there and rub and feel, whatever.”
Ivey said her young grandson likes the aprons so much it makes him want to fidget.
According to Herring, the most popular items lately have been lap robes, which are basically blankets for wheelchair patients. Last week, she said, the group took a bunch of lap robes to Hermitage Retirement Center.
“There was a lady in the doorway of the office and she had a towel over her legs,” Herring said. “I pulled out one of the lap robes I had, gave it her, and she started to cry. I think it means a lot to a lot of them.”
Last week, the giving group made deliveries to Woodhaven Nursing and Alzheimer's Care Center, IHS of Lumberton, Wesley Pines Retirement and Nursing Center, GlenFlora and Hermitage Retirement Center.
Christmas gifts
Kim Bazemore, activity director at Woodhaven, said Herring began bringing stuffed animals to the center's 115 residents just before Christmas.
“We used the animals as Christmas gifts,” she said. “From there, I asked if they could make the fidget aprons and she said she would try. I gave her an old one as a pattern and they've done very well. Our residents really like them.”
Bazemore said the women have even started making eyeglass holders, which she says the residents love.
The group has no plans to stop producing their gratuitous gifts. Herring says there are more than 200 animals stored in the dining room and more orders from nursing homes coming in all the time.
Ivey joked that the group ought to develop its own order form. At first, the ladies laughed at the thought, then simply wrinkled their brows.
It wasn't a bad idea.

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