Program teaches LI kids rewards of sewing

Darit Rains, 10, makes pillow cases as part

Darit Rains, 10, makes pillow cases as part of Sewtacular, a Saturday afternoon program offered in Huntington Station. (Sept. 24, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Given time, they might become future "Project Runway" contestants. But for now, the boys and girls in sewing classes at the nonprofit Tri-Community Youth Agency in Huntington Station are contending with the mechanics of threading machines.

Sewtacular, a Saturday afternoon program offered at the Big H shopping center on New York Avenue, teaches children ages 7-15 the basics of sewing. It was started in June 2010 and is the brainchild of Diana Cherryholmes, executive director of the Huntington Arts Council. She runs the program with another volunteer.

Scanning the supply cabinet holding plastic bins that contain sewing projects in progress, she estimates that to date about 50 children have participated in the year-round, walk-in program. Among their creations: a skirt, pants, a zippered bag, a mini-quilt, a patchwork scarf and tote bags.

"We were really lucky that Diana had the vision to do this program," said Debbie Rimler, executive director of Tri-CYA, noting that people with various skills are always welcome to teach community children. "Last year we had volunteers teaching yoga and martial arts."

Tri-CYA provides educational, recreational, cultural, counseling and advocacy programs for youths and their families within the Cold Spring Harbor, Huntington and South Huntington school districts.

Sewing, in particular, Rimler said, is a life skill children can benefit from in several ways. Once they can sew simple hems and alter garments, eventually they can move on to more complex projects, such as making their own clothes, which can save them money.

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Boosting self-image

In addition, Rimler said, learning to sew is a boost to children's self-esteem.

"It gives them a sense of accomplishment, because they can work on a project from start to finish" and then take it home, she noted.

For the current students, sewing is just a hobby for now. But Cherryholmes said some students in her first class asked for and received sewing machines for Christmas last year.

On a recent Saturday, Alexander Pierre, 7, of Huntington Station, was making a patchwork sheet with program volunteer and quilter Liz Irwin, who helps Cherryholmes by providing one-on-one instruction to the novice sewers. Irwin patiently demonstrated how to fold a hemline on a blue fabric square, and then showed Alexander how to stitch it by hand. He already has plans for his sheet.

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"I'm going to hold it and watch TV on the couch with my mom," he said.

Meanwhile, his 10-year-old brother, Alexy, was busy with Cherryholmes as she helped him with a tote-bag pattern. Together, they cut silver-colored vinyl and then used one of the five donated sewing machines to stitch it together. Alexy said he became interested in sewing after watching his mother patch a hole in his jeans.

"I wanted to learn how to do it myself," he said. The tote bag will be used for school, and Alexy said he doesn't care much that his friends might tease him when they find out he made it.

Working with the children

Deja Walker, 12, also of Huntington Station, arrived late, but swiftly grabbed her project bin and got to work on her own tote bag, made of a cotton floral print. As Cherryholmes left Alexy alone with the sewing machine to help Deja cut her fabric in a straight line, she offered him a gentle reminder: "Slow and steady wins the race."

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Sewtacular is funded by Cherryholmes and individual donors. Fabric, equipment and sewing notions such as buttons, needles and thread are donated by businesses and individuals.

Cherryholmes said she sews mostly for her own pleasure, making things for herself and friends. Other than in high school she has never taken a formal class, but she said she is an avid follower of the DIY movement. She finds inspiration online and in print media and shares it with her students.

"The goal was simply to teach kids a new skill set," Cherryholmes said. "I really didn't know what I would get out of it. I thought it would be fun. I didn't realize how challenging it would be -- 10 hands wanting you all at once!"

All the donated machines are different, so Cherryholmes has to help the children whenever they need to use an unfamiliar one. That can be time-consuming and frustrating for the children, who are eager to complete their projects. However, for Cherryholmes, the rewards far outweigh the difficulties.

"Often I feel that I get far more out of it than they do," she said. "Now that I have been there for awhile, I'm part of their belongings, and that is a very good feeling, indeed. It takes me completely out of my daily life, and I love the kids for giving me those two hours of total 'them' time."

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According to Rimler, the children enjoy their time with Cherryholmes. "The kids are excited to see her," she said. They're engaged."

For Cherryholmes, that's not the only mark of the program's success.

"They keep coming," she said, and "they are proud to show off their completed projects."

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