Donna DiGiglio was reading a women's magazine when she came across a feature story that would change her life-and the lives of many around her.
"It was a story about a very poor mother with a son who was ill with cancer who, one day, fell asleep on the train going home from the hospital one rainy night and a homeless man helped her and her son get home safely," DiGiglio recalls. "The woman promised herself that she would help others, as this man had done. So she started a program in Massachusetts where she made sleeping bags and donated them."
DiGiglio, a lifelong sewer, thought, "I can do that." She got the sewing pattern from the website and began making bags. "I would carry them around in my car and when I would go downtown, if someone asked me for money or food, I would offer them the sleeping bag instead."
In 1990, she created a program, "The Sleeping Bag Stitchers," at St. Giles, her parish. Over the years, the group has worked in several rooms in the school and church but now has their own dedicated room. You don't have to be a church member; everyone is welcome to come help create sleeping bags.
"I have people who just cut, or just tie, or just sew," she said, outlining her assembly line. "I even have people who come in to learn how so they can continue at home, but they usually stay and join our group because it is so much fun."
DiGiglio is also willing to visit community groups and show them how to set up their own sleeping bag sewing program.
The group currently makes about 176 bags a week during the year, with its team of 13-15 volunteers who meet once a week on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. "I encourage everybody to come, and am thinking of adding a second day if there are enough people," she said. The sewing group meets from September through May, taking the summer months off.
Throughout the past year, Alcuin Montessori School has partnered with The Sleeping Bag Stitchers as part of a community service project. The entire school collected men's ties, toiletries and fabrics. Every Tuesday, five students and two parents from Alcuin would deliver the collected materials and assist with the sewing.
"Alcuin originally contacted us, looking for a group to help," said Susan Stearns of the Oak Park Volunteer Center, located at 1111 South Blvd. "I presented several ideas and have been really impressed with what they have accomplished with The Sleeping Bag Stitchers."
The completed sleeping bags are rolled into a resealable plastic bag along with personal care items such as shampoo, soaps and conditioner. Then it's all tied together with a man's tie.
But that's not all. Something very special is included.
"I make a little tiny quilt square with a cross on it," said DiGiglio. "And I also enclose a little non-denominational blessing." Many recipients, she said, like to carry the quilt patch and prayer with them, as a positive memento.
The sleeping bags are then delivered to Fraternite de Notre Dame-or The French Nuns, as they are called-located on Central Avenue. "These women are wonderful and offer help to so many in need," DiGiglio said. "They run a day care and also deliver hot lunches all over the area to the poor. They even run their own bakery, which has unbelievable baked goods."
DiGiglio has also sent sleeping bags to Catholic Charities and the Coalition for the Homeless.
Donations welcomed, needed
All of the material for the sleeping bags is donated. "We usually like to use flannel for the interior lining, because it is so soft, and a dark colored corduroy for the exterior, but we will take and use whatever we can get," she explained.
The group recently transformed a large delivery of blue jean pants into sleeping bags by ripping out the seams and re-piecing the sturdy strips of material together. "We also received a shipment of used mattress covers from a downtown hotel, thanks to the business contacts of a parishioner," she reported. A St. Giles Boy Scout troop came to help with the unloading.
The stitchers welcome any young people, school groups or community members who would like to participate.
"You don't have to know how to sew," she emphasizes. But it was her love of sewing that attracted her to the project. She sews every morning for two hours. "It's a peaceful way to start the day," she says.
The stitchers will be accepting donated material, threads and needles all summer and can be reached at 708/386-3393. For those interested in trying their hand at making a sleeping bag, the pattern and instructions can be located at www.uglyquilts.org.