COLUMBIA — Birthdays often mean cake and celebration, and the case was no different for the 170th birthday of the Relief Society, the Mormon church's organization for women, on Saturday.
But the women from the 13 congregations, called wards, in the mid-Missouri stake of the church weren't opening any presents. They were giving them.
Hand-sewn quilts, fabric hats for children undergoing chemotherapy and 500 cards for overseas troops were a few of the projects presented to five charities at the end of the afternoon.
All women more than 18-years-old in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — often called the Mormon church — are members of the Relief Society, established in 1842. The mid-Missouri stake, which includes five wards in Columbia, has at least 2,000 women members, according to stake Relief Society president Cindy Layton.
Stake events such as Saturday's happen twice a year. The March 17 date was selected before anyone realized it was the organization's birthday, Layton said.
In addition to charity projects, emergency preparedness was a part of the event. Hourly mini-classes focused on topics such as how to make your own spice blends and how to deal with communication problems and bored children during a power outage.
One class focused on incorporating beans, a protein-packed item that can be stored year-round, into various foods. Although people eyed "black bean brownies" on the nearby tasting table with skepticism, many said they couldn't tell there was a secret ingredient.
The Relief Society has three purposes. Long-term self-sufficiency is part of the responsibility to strengthen the home and family, Layton said. The other two are increasing spirituality and helping those in need.
Layton said the humanitarian projects are fueled by the women's faith.
"Charity is always part of the gospel," she said. "You have charity in your heart for other people, love in your heart for other people — that's part of church."
Jeanne Lambson, first counselor for the stake Relief Society, said the projects benefit both recipients and makers.
"Reaching out and helping others through humanitarian projects and just compassionate service — like if someone's sick, taking in a meal — make you a better person because you're not just thinking about yourself," Lambson said. "You're growing emotionally, you're growing spiritually, because you're caring for others."
In addition to three hours of Sunday worship and gospel instruction with the men and young people of the church, women in the Relief Society meet regularly to do projects such as the ones Saturday. These are often craft-related and either for local social services or church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Not all wards' Relief Societies have weekly meetings, but Laura Jost, the stake humanitarian specialist for the past nine years, keeps her home open every Thursday for members in the Highlands ward of Columbia, or anyone in the stake, to stop by.
Whether two or 20 women show up, Jost is ready with projects to make and donate to local social services. Recently, these have included First Chance for Children and the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.
"In my mind, I'm not saving anybody's life, but I'm maybe making it a little bit easier on them," Jost said. "It's nice to have quilts for your babies, like through First Chance for Children. It's nice to have hats to cover up a cancer patient's head. You just try to help people."
Most of the fabric that women were sewing into quilts, hats and baby burp bibs on Saturday was donated by former Methodist minister Mel West. West is founder of the Personal Energy Transportation Project, and he receives shipments of fabric from donors around the country.
Jost has also exchanged materials with the Sew and Sews, a Methodist group for humanitarian sewing.
"We don't question faith if we're going to do something for somebody," Jost said. "We're all brothers and sisters."