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Local resident joins Haitian relief effort PDF Print E-mail

By Shari Friedel

Tribune Staff

Grant resident Helen Johnson has found a way to direct her lifelong passion for sewing toward a relief effort for Haitian children affected by the disastrous earthquake that occurred Tuesday, Jan. 12. 

She and other volunteers are creating diapers cleverly fashioned from t-shirts and other soft absorbent material scavenged from their own stashes of fabric and donated shirts.

Helen has spent the past two weeks on the time-consuming task of cutting and stitching six to eight diapers per evening, and has to date made over 100.

“As I make them I just think of the little brown eyes of a child who may be receiving them,” she said. “I don’t think we can begin to fathom how bad it is over there.”

Helen moved to Grant from Brule several years ago to be closer to her daughter and son-in-law, Ronda and Garry Lawyer, but still attends St. John’s in Brule, the church she was baptized, confirmed and married in. It was through her church that she learned of the diaper project.

Helen’s fondness for sewing began when she was a young child. At the age of eight, she visited a neighbor who sewed her a doll dress. Fascinated with the process, Helen decided then and there that she was going to learn to sew. 

The occupation has factored largely into her adult life as she has done alterations, worked in a fabric store and taught sewing and clothing classes in several western Nebraska communities. Additionally, she sewed suits for herself and husband Harvey.

Downplaying her role in the Haitian relief project, Helen credits Orphan Grain Train, the organization that issued the plea for the homemade diapers.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” she said of the organization that originated in Nebraska in 1992 with a pastor from Norfolk. 

According to the organization’s web site, the story begins with Rev. Ray Wilke’s involvement in a mission trip with other Lutheran volunteers in Latvia and Russia following the breakup of the former Soviet Union. The Latvians begged the reverend to continue to help them as the group was departing.

After his return to the United States, Wilke teamed up with Clayton Andrews, president of Andrews Van Line transportation company, and the Orphan Grain Train was born, based on a vision of a train traveling across the country, picking up donated grain until it reached a port to depart to a needy country.

The volunteer organization has since grown to divisions from coast to coast, providing food, water and clothing to people in need worldwide. Since its origin, Orphan Grain Train has shipped more than 1,600 semi-loads of relief supplies to more than 40 countries and 25 U.S. states, including over 500,000 “Kids Against Hunger” meals to Haiti.

The Haitian earthquake has created new urgency for relief organizations everywhere and OGT is no exception. Most recently, the regional district has purchased, sorted and bagged 44,000 lbs. of beans that were shipped to Haiti.

The Rocky Mountain division of the Orphan Grain Train is headquartered in Julesburg, Colo., covering the eastern Colorado, western Nebraska and Wyoming region. Volunteers sort and package donated clothing at a warehouse that was purchased through grants. Director Heinz Piehl, and his wife Carol, secretary, lead the all-volunteer organization, and have spearheaded the diaper project in this region. 

Carol downloaded the diaper pattern from the internet, revised it to make it simpler, and has gathered volunteers to stitch with a goal of 1,000 diapers by Friday, Feb. 12, when a truckload of supplies destined for Haiti will be picked up.

At this point, she said, relief workers are addressing the most urgent needs in Haiti: food, water and medicine. Clothing will be a focus at a later date, and the need will go on indefinitely for a country in need even before the earthquake.

Both Carol and Helen welcome anyone willing to be involved in the project by sewing, or donating t-shirts or any soft, absorbent material to be used for diapers. Any color except black is acceptable.