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Sew Beloved

How old T-shirts gain new purpose with a simple needle and thread.


Refugio Belén, or The Refuge of Bethlehem, located in Chinandega, Nicaragua, has served over 19,000 young moms since it opened in 2003. In Nicaragua, the mortality rate for children under age five is 17.2 per 1,000 live births[1]; the Refuge of Bethlehem seeks to lower that. It offers 36 beds and multiple bathrooms in addition to quick hospital access for expectant mothers who range in age from 11-40 and who walk up to 40 miles to get there, only to make the same 40-mile trek back home with their newborns. Since the shelter’s opening, every woman who has gone through its doors has had a live birth, and they leave with more than a new baby to care for; the shelter equips them with knowledge. They learn about hygiene, prenatal care, baby care, and nutrition—all of which they share with friends and family back home. Each woman receives a layette bag filled with necessities for mother and child, including bottles, towels, baby shampoo and 18 cloth diapers sewn from cut up T-shirts.

This is where Melita Pfeiler, Holy Cross 881, Holy Cross, Iowa, comes in. She partners with the Catholic Daughters of St. Patrick Parish, 13 different Iowa Rotary clubs and 17 other groups in the Cedar Valley. They collect items for the layette bags, raise money to donate, and make a shipment every September to Nicaragua. A total of 1,200 bags have been given to the shelter, including 128 last year alone, and Melita herself has contributed 10,000 hand-sewn diapers. It’s only a fraction of the total number needed, but Melita and the groups she partners with hope to expand their donations each year to cover more of the demand.

She described the process of cutting out the panels, sewing them together and using other T-shirts to pad the inside. Velcro and elastic are added for comfort and flexibility, and voila, a sturdy, reusable diaper—necessary qualities, as the mothers will wash the diapers with stones in cement basins and hang them over bushes to dry. On average, a shirt yields three and a half diapers, though larger T-shirts usually yield more. Melita commented with a laugh, “I’ll take the hems out because it gives you an extra two inches of fabric!” The T-shirts are all donations, and any scraps go to Goodwill’s recycling program which accepts textile scraps to be reused or recycled, keeping them out of landfills.

Any T-shirts with logos or designs are sewn inside out or put on the outside of the diaper to avoid the harsher texture touching the baby. While this many factors to consider may seem like a challenge, it’s simply routine for Melita. It boils down to “just doing it”, and she hardly gives it a second thought. She tracks the total number she has made on a small piece of paper above her sewing machine.

In addition to sewing diapers, Melita also sews skirts for the mothers to wear when they leave the shelter. While she hasn’t made as many skirts (approximately 200) as she had diapers, they are sewn with just as much thought and care as the diapers, and they provide a nice gift to the mothers.

Melita likes being busy, and she figured this project would be a positive way to spend her free time. In the 20 years since she and her husband have moved off their farm and gone into retirement, she finds herself with even more time to fill. “You might as well use it doing something good!” Melita said.

This is a theme for Melita; we attended a Feeding God’s Children event with her where she jumped right in line to help. For four hours, students from LaSalle Catholic School and adults packed meals in the school’s gymnasium. Melita helped seal the bags, laughing and speaking amicably with the people around her. In total, the volunteers at the event raised money and were able to pack more than 20,000 meals for starving people worldwide.

Both with her time and her materials, Melita uses every part she can to put good into the world. There is no doubt the mothers and babies who have benefited from her 10,000+ handmade diapers appreciate that hard work and care, all from a woman they have never met halfway across the world. 

Article by Alison Mink. 

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