Teen’s pillowcase project inspires many to action

Vinton, Iowa, Aug 12, 2012 / 03:51 pm (CNA).- Megan Ternus, a teenager leading a huge effort to provide handmade clothes to less fortunate children in Haiti, knows what it’s like to walk in their shoes.

“I’m adopted from the Ukraine,” said the 18-year-old student at Vinton-Shellsburg High School in Vinton. “I had no clothing when I was their age.”

Ternus and her brother Mitchell, now 16, lived at the same Ukrainian orphanage before becoming part of a family in Vinton, Iowa.

The young woman was seven years old when brought to the United States. She doesn’t know much about her biological parents and only recently discovered while examining adoption records that she has a twin sister who she’s never met.

Memories of the poverty and hardship orphans face inspired her to take Jesus’ teaching, “clothe the naked” (Matthew 25:35), to a whole new level.

On July 22, after Mass at St. Mary’s Parish in Vinton, Ternus and her parish’s Haiti committee will presented over 500 dresses to Father Marc Magloire, pastor of Notre Dame de Lourdes Parish in Belle Fontaine, Haiti.

“I don’t want to take full credit for this because there are so many people involved,” said Ternus, humbly.

The energetic member of St. Mary’s Parish got the idea for the project while attending the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis last November. She saw a brochure there about a program that uses pillowcases to make dresses for Haitian girls.

Using sewing skills she honed during many years participating in the 4-H Club, Ternus created her own designs. 

“There are two patterns,” explained Ternus as she pulled a dress from a rack of colorful garments hanging in St. Mary’s basement. “I use one for pillowcases and one for fabrics.”

Why pillowcases? “It’s simple and inexpensive; it’s light cotton,” explained the seamstress. “In Haiti, they wash everything in the river.”

Ternus’ parish has teamed up with All Saints Parish in Cedar Rapids. Both churches help support Notre Dame de Lourdes. Several groups have visited the Haitian parish, bringing supplies, financial support and other assistance.

In 2010, earthquakes devastated Haiti, generally regarded as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Out of a total population of about 10 million, about 3 million Haitians are age 14 or younger. There are estimated 500,000 orphaned children.

“These kids need someone to look up to and I feel like it can be me,” said Ternus.

Leo Wobeter, a member of St. Mary’s Haiti committee delivered four of Ternus’ dresses on a recent trip. He said he is impressed by the Ternus family, including Megan’s parents Martin and Connie and her other siblings Molly, Matt and Mitchell.

“We’ve watched these kids grow up,” said Wobeter. “They’ve done such a wonderful job.”

After the initial delivery, Ternus set the goal of creating 250 more dresses.

“I thought 250 was going to be impossible,” said Ternus, who was surprised at the community response that allowed her to more than double that figure.

Ternus enlisted the help of many from her hometown of about 6,000 and beyond. Since December 2011, the effort has expanded to include other area churches, local businesses, such as the Viking Sewing Center in Vinton, and hundreds of individuals from seven states.

Ternus and her mother have been holding sewing workshops at St. Mary’s on a regular basis, teaching participants how to make the dresses. Some people donate materials.

Although a majority of the dresses are made out of pillowcases that have been modified and decorated, some are crafted from the diverse array of fabric donations.

Most feature intricate designs, including embroidering or graphics.

The dresses vary in size for girls up to 18. The volunteers also recently began making male and female school uniforms, created from solid kelly green fabric. Haitian students must have uniforms to attend school, but many cannot afford them, so they cannot attend classes.

Ternus says she hopes there will be a second batch sent in September and a third next spring. Father Magloire, who is pastor of many other Haitian parishes besides Notre Dame, will help distribute the clothes.

“They’re all hand-delivered,” said Ternus. “We don’t want them ending up on the black market.”

Anyone interested in sewing or donating materials to the project can contact St. Mary’s Parish in Vinton at 319-472-3368 or Viking Sewing Center at 319-472-2660.

Posted with permission from The Witness, official newspaper for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa.

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