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Stitching together blessings: Community Christmas Baskets tradition continues

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Robyn Moser (left) and Becky Berning stand with homemade quilts that a component of Worthington's Community Christmas Basket program. (Ryan McGaughey/Daily Globe)3 / 5
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More than 100 quilts wait to be blessed this Sunday at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Wilmont. (Tim Middagh/Daily Globe)5 / 5

WORTHINGTON — A 90-year-old tradition is on track to continue for yet another season in the Worthington area.


The Community Christmas Baskets program — a labor of love and a sincere demonstration of Nobles County residents’ concern for others since the mid-1920s — will distribute food, warm clothing, children’s toys and other necessities to about 300 households at American Reformed Church on Friday.


“It’s amazing this community has been willing to sustain the baskets program for so long, and grown with it as the need expanded,” said Janelle Johnson, a long-time coordinator of the project.


“We don’t focus just on need but on serving the neediest among us, with a careful screening process in place so that those assisted are referred by churches, social service agencies and schools.”


Hundreds of volunteers, from start to finish, are involved in organizing the program, creating and collecting items, running collection points and fundraisers and ultimately implementing the distribution process annually.


“We get quite a bit of support from folks all over Nobles County, including from churches and schools outside of Worthington,” said Johnson. “This involves a lot of people.”


That includes the busy hands of many crafty types who contribute their time and talent in the form of blankets — quilts or fleece — that are shared with basket recipients. Each household receives at least one blanket or quilt, and larger families may receive more.


“You should see the big smiles when we hand them over,” said Johnson of the quilts, which are produced year-round by dedicated volunteers. “They are truly used and needed.”

Stitching blessings in Wilmont

Women from Wilmont’s Our Lady of Good Counsel Church have been crafting quilts for the Nobles County Community Christmas Baskets — and other causes — for so long that no one is confident about the starting point.


“I’ve been involved for at least the past 15 years, and Marilyn Herrig helps coordinate the quilt mission, too,” said Carolyn Penning of Wilmont.


“Before that, Carol Balster coordinated it, and before her, Carrie Probst did.”


Regardless of who is behind the planning, the results are certain: the dozen or so Wilmont women who gather each Wednesday afternoon have produced 157 quilts this year, with more than half of those being dedicated to the county baskets program.


“The other quilts go to the Wilmont Fire and Rescue Squad, the Veterans Hospital in Luverne and the Bishop Dudley House in Sioux Falls,” listed Penning.


“We’ve always had a mission quilt group in our church, since I was small, and when my mother and aunt and another older lady in town were still alive, they sewed quilt squares together and had hundreds of them stored in a closet,” she explained.


“Two of those women have passed away, and one isn’t sewing anymore, so our stash has gone down.”


The Wilmont women don’t buy any material.


“Everything is donated,” Penning stressed. “We use old sheets, leftover material, textiles from people who are cleaning closets or leaving homes, old blue jeans, everything and anything.


“For fillers and backs, we use sheets or mattress pads, whatever we can get, and then we tie the quilts together with yarn, hem them and give them away.”


With camaraderie and coffee freely flowing, Wednesday afternoons fly by for the quilting crowd as they cut squares, lay out quilt patterns or tie, depending on the daily need.


Others who cannot join the weekly gathering are also active in assisting.


“There’s a woman who lives down the street from me, and she’s home with younger kids but she cuts squares for us when she can,” said Penning.


“And in August, I advertised in our church bulletin to see if we could get young girls (ages 10 to 14) in town interested in helping, and we had a dozen or more show up,” noted Penning.


“They laid out 48 quilts in two afternoons and were so enthusiastic they’re going to come and lay out more on the Wednesday of their Christmas vacation; I hope it lit the fire in them.”


Each year on the first Sunday of Advent, the Our Lady of Good Counsel quilters pile all their quilts into a front pew to receive a blessing from the priest before they are given away.


“We don’t always know how these quilts will be used,” admitted Penning. “They might be hung in a doorway to a room to block drafts and provide warmth, or used in a car or as a mattress,” she listed.

“So many people in life have so much less than we do, and while adults have choices, children do not and too often get caught in the crosshairs.


“As a community, as Christians, we see this as our Christian duty and as something we can do for those who are less fortunate.”

For kids, from kids

Unlike the Wilmont women, the seven girls of Worthington’s Girl Scout Troop 34485 made fleece blankets for the Community Christmas Baskets for the first time this November.

But their enthusiasm for the effort, and for the good they were doing, was no less.


“They had a blast,” said Chasidy Caster, troop leader for the 9- and 10-year-olds. “It was our first year, but we took this on as a project and made six blankets.”


Caster’s charges first visited Wal-Mart as a group to purchase bulk fabric. They chose patterns they thought would be appropriate for boys and girls, as the blankets they created were mostly kid-sized.


“They loved the idea of doing it and had fun, knowing what they made would go to other children,” said Caster, adding that her husband is involved in the local wood crafter’s club whose toys are also part of the basket distribution.


“We thought this would be an awesome project to do, and the girls liked that their work would be given to kids their age or younger.”

Stash and Scrappy gets crafty for baskets

A 35-member Worthington crafting group, the Stash and Scrappy Quilting Connection, meets monthly at American Reformed Church, supplementing the fun of being together by donating a bulk of their handiwork to the Community Christmas Baskets recipients.


“We turned in a bunch,” said Becky Berning, a representative of the quilting guild, which she called a “word of mouth,” six-year-old group that includes women who are interested in sewing and quilting.

Conservatively, Berning estimates the Stash and Scrappy workers donated several dozen hats, mittens, scarves, headbands and blankets for the 2016 effort.


“There was one gal who’s been laid up for a few months with health concerns, and she alone made six crib- and youth-sized quilts,” said Berning, who also volunteers with the baskets program as a registrar and treasurer.


“We like to get together and have sewing bees, but we all do some work on our own at home, too, and you can get quite a bit done even with just 10 minutes a day — it’s something we enjoy doing,” she added.


Berning is present when the Community Christmas Baskets are distributed, and she is moved by the gratitude and apparent need of recipients.


“You can just tell they’re in need of warm clothes and food, and we see families of all sizes,” said Berning.


“If we can help somebody stay warmer and have a meal on the table, or see kids get a little present at Christmas, why not do it?” Berning continued.

Berning’s quilting group is pleased to combine a passion for crafting with lending a hand to others.


“It’s just satisfying to be able to contribute something you know will help someone else, you bet it is,” she said.


“Seeing the smiles on the faces of people who are benefiting — man, that makes you feel good.”


To donate items (non-perishable foods, new adult or children’s clothing such as gloves, scarves, hats, socks or underwear, hygiene products including toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant, etc.) for the Nobles County Community Christmas Baskets, contact Dennis or Marie Weeks at 376-9180. Cash or checks (made payable to Community Christmas Baskets) may be sent to: Community Christmas Baskets, P.O. Box 552, Worthington 56187.


To donate items that the Our Lady of Good Counsel quilters can use in their quilt-making (old sheets, blankets, jeans, mattress pads, pillow cases, fabric scraps, etc.), call Carolyn Penning at 926-5305.