The finishing touch

93-year-old woman threads bags that go to children in Haiti

-Submitted photo
Marilyn Kiliper, of Fort Dodge, holds a stack of cloth bags at her home. Kiliper puts strings through the bags before they are shipped to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The bags eventually make there way to Haiti for children to store their school supplies in.

Each time Marilyn Kiliper threads a piece of string through the top of the bags she helps make, she wonders what child will one day hold it in their hands.

Kiliper, 93, of Fort Dodge, threads the bags for a group of women from Grace Lutheran Church. Together they make bags for Mission Haiti. The bags are used to store the children’s school supplies.

“Every time I thread that strip through the top, I always stop and wonder which little child will get this over in Haiti,” said Kiliper, who is a charter member and volunteer at Grace Lutheran Church.

Kiliper used to help with the bags at the church. But during the COVID-19 pandemic she’s been doing her part at home.

Connie Gustafson and Norma Erickson, both of Fort Dodge, are also members of Grace Lutheran Church. The two cut up gently-used donated T-shirts and sew them. Then Erickson will drop off a batch to Kiliper to put the finishing touch on them.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Connie Gustafson, of Fort Dodge, explains the process of turning gently-used T-shirts into bags for school supplies. Gustafson is a member of Grace Lutheran Church. She and a group of about 10 people from the church make the shirts for Mission Haiti.

“Without those two I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing for Mission Haiti,” Kiliper said. “They bring the bags to me and all I do is thread the ties through the little hem at the top and turn them back in to those ladies.”

The bags come in different colors and sizes. The bottom part of the shirt is used for the bags, according to Gustafson. Gustafson said each adult-sized T-shirt can make two bags. The remaining fabric is donated to the local animal shelter to be used as rags.

“They’ll bring me 35 to 40 at a time,” Kiliper said. “Sometimes not quite that many and sometimes a few more.”

Kiliper said she’s completed over 1,000 since March.

“I can sit in front of the TV and watch the news and if I don’t have those to thread through, I am kind of lost,” Kiliper said. “It’s not hard work; it’s more of a therapy to me.”

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
A collection of bags made from gently-used T-shirts pack this shelf at Grace Lutheran Church. The bags will eventually be delivered to children in Haiti.

Erickson and Gustafson got involved with Mission Haiti about 10 years ago. They have each visited Haiti to drop off supplies.

The two women said visiting the country put into perspective the needs the people have. And it inspired them to want to donate their time and energy into giving back.

“When we went to Haiti and saw some of the needs — the kids needed school bags that they get supplies from different organizations that give them out,” Gustafson said. “So that’s how it started. And the kids are just awesome.”

Gustafson’s last visit was in 2014. Erickson visited in 2012.

According to Gustafson, the Grace Lutheran Church group makes about 2,300 bags each year.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Marilyn Kiliper, 93, of Fort Dodge, threads strings like these through gently-used T-shirts. The shirts are transformed into bags and delivered to children in Haiti. There, the children use the bags to store school supplies.

“Some of these kids walk 10 miles to school,” Gustafson said. “We donate a lot of backpacks and school supplies, too. We send wedding dresses, soccer balls, all kinds of things — things we know the kids need there.”

About 10 people from the church help with the bags.

Erickson enjoys taking the bags to Kiliper.

“We were not having any meetings for like a month in March and she said she would still like to have some to keep busy and I said, ‘OK I’ll drop them off,’ Erickson said. “She leaves the ones finished at her door. We have kind of a thing going on and we have been doing that since March. She’s our main stringer.”

Once the bags are made, they are shipped to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the headquarters for Mission Haiti. From there, team members will physically travel to Haiti to deliver the materials.

“Teams that go to the orphanage will carry them in suitcases because you can’t ship them in,” Gustafson said. “Because of the corruption, they would never get to the school if you just sent stuff. We always hand carry them in.”

But because of the virus, not as many teams have traveled to Haiti.

“It’s slowing down getting the bags to them,” Gustafson said.

Erickson and Gustafson have also sponsored children from Haiti, paying for things like tuition and health care.

“It gives kids a chance to make something of their lives,” Gustafson said.

Erickson said a girl she first started sponsoring in fourth grade is now in eighth grade.

“I pay for her schooling and her shots,” Erickson said. “She gets one meal a day at least. I pay her tuition for a year, every year. And that’s fulfilling. And then she sends pictures. Just to see her grow. We correspond once or twice a year.”

Erickson enjoys seeing the good she can do.

“Just knowing that I’m helping,” she said. “The bags make a difference. It takes a lot of time to get them done, but it’s fulfilling to know it will help these young children and get them to school. School changes lives. That’s what makes it exciting for me.”

For Kiliper, she appreciates being part of the team.

“I’ve always been active in the church,” Kiliper said. “Serving and helping the church has always been an important part of my life.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today