Traverse City Record-Eagle

Life

December 26, 2010

Charities help with heating and coziness

Charities help with heating bills, furnaces, cozy sleeping

TRAVERSE CITY-- Keeping toasty and warm is expensive, but as winter arrives in northern Michigan it's also imperative.

Here, the stories of local individuals, groups and a business who are working to bring some warmth to those in need.

Sleeping bags

Dorothy Fistler got antsy within minutes of being an empty-nester. That was more than 16 years and 3,000 sleeping bags ago.

Fistler started a local chapter of Our Brother's Keeper, a tightly knit group of a dozen women who sew sleeping bags from scratch. Each bag is decorated, filled with toys and hygiene products, then donated to local charities, including the Salvation Army, the Women's Resource Center and the Goodwill Inn.

The group meets Wednesday mornings throughout the year at the Immanuel Baptist Church on McRae Hill Road, where they have a room devoted to sewing tables, machines and a closet stuffed full of batting.

The group runs solely on donations, from the filler for the bags to the toiletries tucked inside.

Ryan Hannon, Goodwill street outreach coordinator, said the bags can mean the difference between life and death.

"For some of them, it really is a life-saving thing. They're thankful to have something to keep them warm. People who are living in cars are very grateful," Hannon said.

"I've never seen the people who make them," he said. "The bags just appear."

Major Bruce Jennings, corps officer of the Traverse City Salvation Army, said the most recent donation of 20 sleeping bags was one of the most popular things at the toy shop before Christmas.

"The sleeping bags didn't last very long," he said. "They were one of the first things to go."

Fistler remembers a morning during her childhood in Detroit, when her dad went out to get the paper and could tell from the marks left in the snow that someone had slept on the family's porch.

"Dad was so upset," Fistler said. "He asked, 'Why didn't they ring the bell? I would have let him in. He didn't even have a blanket.'"

Fistler took that frustration, mixed with the ennui of her empty nest, and turned it into a local chapter of Flo Wheatley's faith-based charity, sometimes called The Sleeping Bag Project.

It was awkward at first, she admitted, because she'd "never begged." Asking got easier and now Fistler and her fellow helpers get toiletries from travelers as well as directly from the motels, old sheets and blankets for material, stuffed animals at garage sales and help from Fistler's son Scott, who fixes sewing machines at his shop, C&S Sewing, on South Airport Road, which also serves as a drop spot for donations.

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