BLOOMFIELD – First, St. James Parish in Rocky Hill started a sewing group. Then, St. Joseph Parish in Poquonock picked up the thread. Then, St. James copied one of St. Joseph’s patterns.
And sew it goes.
St. James parishioners Gene D’Onofrio and Sandy Rokosz formed the Knit, Crochet and Sew Good Works Ministry there in 2001, with the idea of creating blankets, quilts, curtains and clothing items for individuals and organizations that help people in need. Their tightly knit group of women has produced some 14,000 items and distributed them to shelters, nursing homes, families and others both inside and outside of the parish.
Twenty miles up the river, at St. Joseph Parish, about four years ago, Joanne Sterlein got wind of the work St. James was doing and formed Helping Hands for Warming Families. “We started our ministry with the idea that they had over at their church and we embellished on that,” Mrs. Sterlein said. They began thinking outside the parish, outside the archdiocese, outside the state and outside the country – to Afghanistan.
“We do a lot of things for the troops,” Mrs. Sterlein said, including making a gel crystal-filled neck-worn item to help soldiers stay cool in the heat. It is modeled after Cool Ties, an item that began production in 1991. Mrs. Sterlein said that her group has made about 200 of them.
Back down in Rocky Hill, a daughter of one of the women in Sew Good Works was about to be deployed to Afghanistan. She had heard about the cooling ties the women in Poquonock were making and talked the Rocky Hill group into making them as well.
“We started small,” Mrs. D’Onofrio said at a recent sewing session. “We try to incorporate as many retired women in the parish as possible, to give them something to do.”
Mrs. D’Onofrio demonstrated how the cooling ties are made. She formed a tube from a piece of fabric about 45 inches long and four inches wide. She formed a pocket in the middle of the tube and inserted a half-teaspoon of polymer gel crystals. She sewed it shut and soaked the item in ice water for a few minutes.
“You can already see how it’s swelling up,” she said. “You then put this around your neck and tie it, and it’s going to stay cool for an hour and a half, just long enough for somebody who happens to be out in the heat. It’s great for mowing the lawn, too.”
Mrs. Rokosz said, “The cooling ties are just a small piece of what we’ve done.” She pointed to a table piled high with fabric and half-finished items. “As you can see from what’s come in just this week, we do baby blankets and lap rugs and prayer shawls. With the fabric, depending on what it is, we make a lot of kids’ clothes and a lot of sweatshirt-like tops. We did 15 or 16 first Communion dresses for one of the parishes. We did drapes and curtains.”
Up in Poquonock, Mrs. Sterlein said they still make and mail about 15 cooling ties or other items every month. “We also do helmet liners for the troops, to keep them warm in the winter,” she said.
They send items to nursing homes and hospitals, including Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. “We do quite a bit for them, especially for the cancer patients. We do turbans for their heads, and we do kerchiefs as well.”
She said Helping Hands makes a bag that holds a small pillow for breast cancer patients to place under their arm.
Gayle Brick, ministry coordinator at St. Joseph, said that parishioners responded to the call to the ministry with enthusiasm. “People came from everywhere, and now it’s developed into quite an amazing ministry,” she said. “They really do serve people very near in our own community in the Hartford Archdiocese and very far to troops.”
Father Robert B. Vargo is pastor of St. Joseph Parish. “Helping Hands, for the past two years at least, has received one of those grants from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal to assist in its good works,” he said.
Both parishes, in fact, are helped by the Vicariate Outreach Program of the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, which last year helped fund nearly 100 parish ministries and provided financial aid to 247 local charities.