Paulette Fernekees, of Westminster, sews another outfit she hopes will bring a smile to the face of a Haitian child.
Paulette Fernekees, of Westminster, sews another outfit she hopes will bring a smile to the face of a Haitian child. (Dolly Merritt Photo, Carroll County Times)

The old African proverb "It Takes a Village to Raise a Child" could be the maxim for Paulette Fernekees, of Westminster.

She and her husband Bill can appreciate that saying, having raised seven children, ages 16 to 39 - six of whom they brought up from infancy through specialized foster care.

But aside from the responsibilities of parenthood and running their home-based business, No Croak Embroidery, the mother and businesswoman ekes out time to make clothes for impoverished Haitian children.

"I love making outfits for the children of Haiti," said the seamstress, who has made 102 dresses, shorts and tops during the past year or so. "Everything I make, I know there's going to be a kid smiling."

She answered the need through a friend, Mary Sterling, a New Jersey resident who visits Haiti periodically on a mission of her church to help in orphanages there. When Sterling mentioned the need for children's clothing, Fernekees responded.

She purchased a suitcase and packs it with the clothing she has made. When Sterling is visiting, she is given the stuffed piece of luggage so she can take it with her during her next visit to Haiti.

Weekends for Paulette Fernekees can be busy as she attends motorcycle shows where she sells embroidered items from the family's RV to people who want to be identified by their biker club's insignia, logo and name or other personal information. Despite the demand on her time during the shows, she's always ready to stitch a few more children's items on her machine in the RV whenever there's a lull.

While at home, Fernekees is taking care of her family or answering phones, filling orders and helping customers who come into her workplace.

"She can't sit still," said daughter Tiffany Applefeld, who has three children and works in the family business.

"When the embroidery machines are going and the kids are watching TV, I sew," said Fernekees, who can make an outfit in 30 minutes.

She said she is grateful for the fabric donated by her customers who have seen the piles of clothes in her home workshop.

One biker's mother, a quilter, had died, leaving behind piles of fabric which were given to Fernekees. Another person, who works out at the gym where Bill Fernekees exercises, donated blanket material when his mother, also a quilter, passed away.

"If I didn't get donations [of fabric and yarn] it would be hard to supply the materials myself," said Paulette Fernekees, who praises the number of people, mostly bikers, who have contributed fabric.

"If someone gives me fabric or yarn, I do something with it," she said. "I am not a religious person, but I do believe in humanity."

That's why children's outfits aren't her only mission. Fernekees sews blankets to distribute to anyone who could use some extra warmth, even handing them out to the homeless during a trip to the garment district in New York to purchase leather for her business.

Having rolled the blankets in rubber bands and tucked them in her backpack, she was prepared to help street people she encountered by inconspicuously placing blankets beside them.

"One guy yelled, 'Hey,' and I was hoping it was OK," Fernekees said. "Then he gave me a hug, thanking me. It felt good."

Another outreach project is visible in her workplace, where a trash bin is full of knitted caps. Contributions of yarn have enabled Fernekees to knit caps for Johns Hopkins Hospital chemotherapy patients, both adults and children.

"I always add things like braids or ponytails to the caps to make them fun to wear," said the enthusiastic knitter as she picked up one of her creations embellished with yellow pigtails.

For two years, Fernekees and Applefeld made vests for wounded military persons at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where they befriended many of the soldiers.

As a result, the two women joined Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle club whose members attend funerals of U.S. military personnel, firefighters and police, at the request of the deceased's family. The mother and daughter volunteer "behind the scenes" through the organization and still make vests for veterans. Bill Fernekees is an active member of the organization, attending the military funerals.

Paulette Fernekees also signed up to volunteer for American Red Cross disaster relief, an expression of her continued interest in helping wherever there is a need.

During floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or other disasters, Fernekees said, she could help at shelters and even drive one of the large food wagons, having had experience navigating her 40-foot RV.

"If I can, I can," said Fernekees, who attributes her multi-tasking abilities to the support of her husband and children.

In the meantime, there's more work to be done.

"I daydream about these little babies growing up and doing well," Fernekees said of the children in Haiti. "I am always going to be doing this as long as I have fabric."

She has another dream: to someday buy a more reliable RV with the sign "Donations Cross the Nations," in which she and her family would travel across the country, raising funds for multiple causes.

"We would go wherever the cause is," Fernekees said. "Unfortunately, there will always be a need for help in this world."

Those interested in donating fabric may contact Paulette Fernekees through her email address: croakems@yahoo.com.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun