The Texas Fire Relief Giveaway

Cathy Kizerian 2012

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Last September, a firestorm engulfed Bastrop, Texas, burning over 34,000 acres and destroying 1,645 homes. It earned the dubious honor of being the most catastrophic fire in Texas history.

When this occurred, the members of the online Yahoo group StitchMAP (Mentors and Apprentices), headed by Shari Jensen, learned that seven of their members (most of whom were crazy quilters) had lost either their homes and stash or suffered severe smoke damage. The group put out a plea to their members to donate anything sewing-related to help these women restore their needlework and sewing supplies. As donations were made and word spread, the project took on a life of its own. The goal grew from helping just their members to helping affected women in Bastrop County who practiced any kind of needlework or sewing.

Typical donation

Shari contacted the Crazy Quilting International, International Hand Stitchers, CQ Embellishers, and Learning Fiberarts online groups to ask for donations and help. She also approached the Rocky Mountain Crazy Quilters group for assistance. EGA and ANG Chapters across America sent gift cards and supplies. Donations came from almost every state in the U.S. and many foreign countries. Even former victims of Hurricane Katrina donated, wanting to pay forward the generosity they had received several years ago.

Early on, it became apparent that StitchMAP would have so much to give away, it would take careful planning and organization to pull off a successful distribution. The date for distribution was set for February, when most victims would again be in homes. Shari and her husband decided they would drive their truck and large trailer, loaded with sewing supplies, from Colorado to Texas. Many local volunteers agreed to help with that effort as well, and the caravan to Texas for the Texas Fire Relief Giveaway and Distribution was planned. But much work was still to be done.

For several months, Shari, with the help of her daughter and her good friend Connie Kalina, sorted through mountains of fabrics, boxes of donated threads and fibers, lace, beads and trims, cutting implements, needles, tape measures, pin cushions, buttons, kits, patterns, books and magazines. There were five sewing machines donated. One of the machines, donated by Kathy Shaw, was new.

Diana and Claudina make basic sewing kits

In late January, Shari organized a "Sew-a-Thon" with the Rocky Mountain Crazy Quilters (and some wonderful husbands). They met at the Holly Quilt Shop in Centennial, Colorado and set out to assemble 100+ basic sewing kits (BSKs). The gentlemen helped with packaging buttons, sorting pins (straight pins and safety pins) and needles. RMCQ members cut and ironed some of the donated fabric for drawstring bags into which the BSK items would be packaged. Some of the women sewed the bags together on sewing machines or sergers they had brought from home. Still other volunteers made felt needle books, put the cords into the bag casings and/or put an assortment of pins in the pincushions and a variety of needles into the needle books. It was a finely-tuned operation, and Shari said, "Henry Ford himself (father of the assembly line process) would be proud." In the end, they were a bit short of their goal of 100 finished BSKs, so several volunteers stepped forward to finish the last few at home and see to it that they were delivered to Shari in time to get to Texas.

When the February distribution date drew close, Shari's group was ready. Several volunteers, among them Connie Kalina and Claudina Hruby, loaded their vehicles and drove to Texas. They made one stop along the way to pick up some items being brought from central Texas by Glenda Sikes, another StitchMAP member. These were then loaded into the tiny bit of remaining space in Shari's trailer for the trip into Bastrop.

Lyn Gaskill and Shari Jensen in front of loaded trailer

One crazy quilter, Michelle Pittman, who is a member of both StitchMAP and Crazy Quilting International, and who had also lost her home in the fire, donated the utility deposit necessary to secure the fellowship hall of the First United Methodist Church. That is where the general giveaway was held from noon to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 25, 2012. Media coverage and local word of mouth sparked additional interest, and volunteers from the Lost Pines Quilt Group, In Stitches Group, and the Ladies of Charity from Bastrop all arrived early Saturday morning to help set out and organize the thirty-plus tables of donated stash, including over 600 pounds of fabric alone. StitchMAP members from all over Texas converged on the scene as well to help the event run smoothly.

Debbie Higgins, Bobbie and Lyn Gaskill organize tables

Donations were grouped by area of interest, such as cross stitch, knitting, crochet, quilting, etc. It was estimated that over $10,000 of goods, mostly new, had been donated for the giveaway. Volunteers assembled twelve gift baskets by type of needle art to add to the Anchor floss cabinet, the weaving loom and the scroll frame that were being given away at the 3:00 p.m. drawing. All attendees were eligible to win the prize baskets and other items. However, only qualified disaster recipients, holding a FEMA certificate that proved they were affected by the fire, were able to enter the drawings for the five sewing machines that were given away.

Almost ready to begin the giveaway

Michelle Pittman made taco soup for the volunteers, Renee Gray sorted all the books and magazines by type, Claudina Hruby and Connie Kalina manned the welcome table, Lyn Gaskill (also a fire victim and StitchMAP member) and the rest of the volunteers readied themselves to act as guides as the line of people were let in at noon. The first 100+ people were given one of the BSKs. As they signed in they were greeted warmly and given five free tickets for the raffle. The volunteers worked throughout the afternoon to help those in need find the things that fit their area of interest.

Claudina Hruby and Connie Kalina greet guests

One woman, who was not able to attend because she was in the hospital having chemotherapy, sent her husband and three sons. With the help of the volunteers, they were able to pick out several bags full of items for their mom. Luckily they were among the door prize winners, also. They were so grateful that they stayed until after closing to help the volunteers clean up and then helped deliver the leftover stash to the Ladies of Charity Thrift Shop.

Newlywed firefighter and fire victim wins a sewing machine

Another door prize winner, a young bride who had just moved to Bastrop the prior year, was a volunteer firefighter. She and her husband had been out helping others save their homes for two days during the fires. When they returned home the second day, they learned their own home had burned down. She was one of the lucky sewing machine winners, and cried for joy.

Renee Grey chats with a guest

Shari Jensen says that in all, over one hundred women were helped and 90% of the donations were given away. The remaining few things left over were donated to the Ladies of Charity, a local thrift charity, that had been assisting fire victims by paying their new utility and rental deposits.

There were so many people who gave of their time, energy, money and personal stash to help the victims of the wildfires in Bastrop County. The online stitching community of crazy quilters would like to extend sincere appreciation to Shari Jensen and all those who donated or volunteered in this effort. Thanks to you, the Texas Fire Relief Giveaway was an unqualified success and helped to build awareness of the needle arts throughout the region.

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