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SELMA – Terry Elementary’s Felicia Gonzales and Dolores Bouciegues were brainstorming ideas about how to teach students about empathy when they came across a quilt project online for premature babies.

Did their students know how to sew? No.

Did the school have stashes of fabric, supplies or sewing machines? No.

Did they even know who to contact at a local hospital? No.

What they did have was a genuine caring for children and a willingness to learn. After making phone calls to Valley Children’s Healthcare Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, they had a willing recipient of the small quilts they would create.

“I was teaching Dolores how to sew at my house and we talked about how we could do this with the kids to teach them empathy and doing things for other people,” Gonzales said. She’s Terry Elementary’s librarian tech and Bouciegues teaches second grade. They coordinated with Rubie Becker, the after-school site coordinator for Fresno County Office of Education’s Teaching Fellows program, to arrange for funding and enlist students.

Staff brought in their own sewing machines from home and the third through sixth graders started sewing the quilts in February. First, students had to be taught how to safely use the machines, and that in itself was a little intimidating, Gonzales said.

“I was a little bit hesitant at first. We had a safety meeting and I was very surprised and proud. The students showed me they’re very capable and had the ability to learn this skill. They showed me and soon it was me who was asking, ‘who knows how to do this?’ They made more blankets than I did and I’m really proud of them.”

Becker said she noticed that at first the students were a bit wary of using the equipment with knobs, moving wheels, spools, bobbins and needles.

“They saw the sewing machines and were just scared, so one of the biggest things was them having to face their fears,” Becker said. The students challenged themselves to learn this skill, encouraged each other and “got the courage to go for it. One of the students even said it that they’ll learn to sew more later on.”

Sisters Mikinzi Horn, 12, a sixth grader, and Hailey Simons, 8, a third grader, were among after-school students who took part in the preemie quilt project. They’ve never sewn before so they had to start from the beginning.

“At first, I was nervous but after a couple of days I got the hang of it,” Mikinzi said. “They showed us how to be safe with the machine and where to put your hands. Miss Bouciegues showed us at least three blankets as examples.”

The students chose the quilt back pieces first, and then picked out coordinating fabrics that would match. Mikinzi made three little quilts that featured roses, fireflies and butterflies while her younger sister made quilts that were alphabet and pirate-themed.

“We don’t have a sewing machine so it was like a big experiment,” Hailey said.

The sisters do have some experience with babies, though, since they have an infant sibling and cousins. Thus, they realized just how small the recipients of their blankets are and put much consideration into measuring the blankets so they’d be just the right size.

“I was thinking about the babies and if the quilts would fit them so I made one that big,” Mikinzi said gesturing to one of the quilts on display for a May 30 ceremony where the quilts were given to Valley Children’s Healthcare NICU staff.

Aside from sewing skills, the students said they also learned to cooperate and communicate when they worked in teams to complete some of the quilts. More importantly, they realized they could make a difference in the lives of other children.

“It feels like I’m a part of something and I really matter,” Hailey said.

“It’s like that saying, ‘it’s better to give than receive,’ Mikinzi added.

NICU Manager Amy Slater and parent representative Tracy Gong received the nearly 40 quilts the students made and were impressed to hear about their tenacity to learn to sew just for this project.

“It’s hugely important that they have the heart to care about other kids and babies and wanted to do something,” Slater said. “It really shows the compassion and care they have for others.”

As babies are discharged from Valley Children’s, the parents will be given the quilts along with other hand-made items donated by other groups.

“Parents go home with a souvenir they can keep for a lifetime. To know that a child has made [the quilt] especially with love, care and compassion is something they’ll treasure as a remembrance of their time at Valley Children’s,” Slater said.

Gong said she knows what it’s like to be a recipient of such kindness as she was given a hand-made quilt when her daughter spent time at the NICU.

“I still have [that quilt] so I know when the parents receive these blankets, it’s just going to be amazing. To know it was made by a child who cared enough to take the time to sew, it really means everything. It’s really the most special gift to take their babies home in after months of being at the hospital.”

Gonzales said the project was especially meaningful to her because her own son was given a hand-made quilt after his stay at the NICU.

“We still have that blanket. I know that the families you’ve made this for are going to treasure it. It will be a lifetime keepsake.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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