Shepherd of Valley woman thankful for fabric donors

Harlene Huffstetler, 83, of Niles, works on a dress with her sewing machine. Huffstetler lives at Shepherd of the Valley in Niles and wrote a “Giving Thanks” letter to the Tribune Chronicle thanking the community for donating to her fabric drive in August, which enabled her to continue sewing dresses, pants and teddy bears for children in need. Photo by Allie Vugrincic

NILES — Harlene Huffstetler, 83, sews dresses, pants, and teddy bears for children in need.

A resident of Shepherd of the Valley, Huffstetler recently wrote a “Giving Thanks” letter to the Tribune Chronicle thanking members of the community who donated to her fabric drive, making it easier to continue her volunteering effort.

The fabric drive, held in August, collected enough supplies to fill a spare room at the Niles facility.

“I’ve been overwhelmed and overjoyed. The response was phenomenal,” Huffstetler said, adding that before the donations, she depended on garage sales to get the fabric she needed.

Several years ago, Huffstetler started sewing dresses with a charitable group at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Warren, in partnership with San Felix Mission in Panama. The church group no longer exists, but Huffstetler has continued making dresses, independently, for the past five years. The last 29 dresses Huffstetler sewed were sent to Uganda, while in the past, her items have gone to Panama as well as to the local Salvation Army.

According to Huffstetler, there is a need for these dresses in impoverished communities.

“Just think, when they have nothing, receiving a dress like this is like winning the lottery,” said Kim Osborn, activities director at Shepherd of the Valley, who helped set up a space at Shepherd of the Valley for Huffstetler to sew.

“It’s very rewarding,” Huffstetler said. “I had little girls of my own that I sewed for, and they were always so happy to get a dress from mommy.”

Huffstetler also makes teddy bears for children affected by trauma. She distributes the bears locally through the Niles and Warren police departments in the hopes the bears may bring some type of comfort to children whose families are broken apart.

“It’s good for them to have something to hold onto,” she said.

Before her direct connection with the police departments was established, Huffstetler said she kept the bears in a box in her car. She would pass them off to police officers whenever she had the opportunity.

“She has taught us all the satisfaction of giving back,” Osborn said.

In addition to the fabric drive, the community also has donated sewing machines, needles, thread and buttons. “My dentist was even collecting fabric for me,” she said.

Huffstetler, who said she doesn’t believe in waste, repurposes or donates her useable fabric scraps. Recently, she gave spare fabric to the SCOPE Senior Center in Niles to be used for quilting.

Huffstetler also has a message for the elderly about service. “I would like to give people a heads up on the fact that even when they’re old, there are so many things they can do,” she said, adding her signature phrase, “Just because I’m old doesn’t mean my brain is dead.”

As news of Huffstetler’s sewing spread, others have been expressing interest in her work. Her neighbor now helps cut fabric, and Pastor Don Barnes, the resident pastor at Shepherd of the Valley, held a service of dedication to bless Huffstetler’s dresses before they were sent to the children.

In the coming months, Huffstetler has plans to start sewing pants for boys and make blankets in addition to the dresses and bears. Because of her generous work, Huffstetler was a recipient of a 2018 Valley Legacy Award for Outstanding Senior Service.

“It’s good to help those less fortunate young people,” Huffstetler said. “It’s what we’re supposed to do.”