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National effort gives new outfits to Joplin children

Monday, August 1, 2011 | 12:29 p.m. CDT

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Some Joplin students returning to school after a summer of recovering from a devastating tornado will be sporting new, handmade outfits donated by strangers from across the country.

The outfits arrive daily at the Pittsburg, Kan., home of Susan Stewart, a clothing designer, who decided she wanted students affected by the tornado in Joplin to start their school year Aug. 17 with bright and unique outfits. More than 3,000 Joplin students were displaced by the tornado, which also destroyed five of the district's schools and damaged five others.

Stewart called it Project First Day, and the response from seamstresses around the country has been overwhelming, The Joplin Globe reported Monday.

Stewart said she was inspired by remembering how much she liked wearing a new outfit on the first day of school. She used contacts she's acquired as a nationally known clothing designer for a sewing magazine, a sewing conference instructor, prize-winning quilter and published author to promote the idea.

"Apparently that memory of a first-day outfit struck a chord with a lot of women across the country because the idea went viral," she said.

A pattern designer from Nashville, Tenn., shipped out 300 patterns after committing to sending a free pattern to anyone who wanted to make a garment. Another pattern designer, concerned that most of the outfits would be for girls, offered a free downloadable pattern to make T-shirts for boys.

A black one arrived last week from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., embroidered with a neon guitar and the words "Joplin Rocks."

The number of outfits that have arrived changes daily. Stewart said it's not unusual for her to receive at least 14 boxes a day, some with one outfit and others with dozens of outfits.

During an interview with the Globe, a small package from Montana was delivered to Stewart's home. She added it to unopened boxes from Maryland, Virginia, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, Colorado, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. On a 10-day teaching trip to Alabama, seamstresses contributed 200 outfits. When she returned home, 48 boxes awaited her.

Stewart said she's fairly certain that seamstresses from every state in the nation and some from Canada have responded. The only requirement is that the clothes should be colorful.

"I had suggested that they make bright, happy clothes," Stewart said. "So much of Joplin has no color anymore. It's dusty. Trees are gone. It's monotone."

Kim Vann, communications director for the Joplin School District, said the district couldn't coordinate the distribution of the clothes but offered to help Stewart connect with someone who could help. Stewart is still looking for assistance in getting the clothes to the students.

"As a school district, we are just absolutely grateful and humbled by the outpouring of support by people throughout the nation and the world," Vann said.

Stewart acknowledged that it would have been cheaper and easier to buy clothes and send those to students.

"But this means I am concentrating my attention on one particular child, a child who will receive this, and it won't be like anyone else's," she said. "It means you are important and unique and special to me. And we won't ever know who that child may be, but we'll just have to know that on Aug. 17, one of them might be wearing what we made just for them."


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