It's really no surprise Diana Cofield has a pair of Jack Russell terriers.
If you know this breed, they're smart, loving, crafty (in a good way) and energetic.
Much like Diana.
I first met this Dade City fireball six years ago when she was helping her granddaughter with a fundraising project. Diana, an Ybor City native who worked as a custom seamstress for more than five decades, had started a post-retirement business called Sew Creations, a line of double-quilted totes, backpacks, purses, diaper bags and “hipsters.”
They cost about half as much as designer bags — think Vera Bradley, and you get the picture — and they're all handmade, sewn to perfection on one of Diana's old Singer machines.
“The bags you get in stores,” she whispers, “are from China.”
Her granddaughter, then a junior at Riverview High School in Riverview, sold the bags to raise money for a spring mission trip to Brazil with her church youth group. A woman of strong Christian faith, Diana thought that was a dandy idea. She called them “purses with a purpose.”
Diana was 74 at that time. I loved that she had taken the talent that once made her a living and found a way to channel it in another direction.
She didn't want to lose those skills. It's something she feels strongly about.
“Sewing is a dying art,” she says with a sigh. Even the machines she uses are a throwback to another era. She has a century-old Prussia-made Singer purchased for $50 on eBay, and a 112-year-old machine she found for $10 at a garage sale.
“Still runs beautifully,” she says proudly.
Now, that entrepreneurial project has led to something much greater in Diana's life.
She founded and leads Journey of the Heart, a ministry at her church, First Baptist of Dade City. Every week, she and about 16 volunteers — a mix of retirees and home-schooled students — get together to sew totes and backpacks on their trusty machines. They make about 200 bags a year, fill them with a few kid-friendly items such as coloring books and crayons, and distribute them free to pediatric cancer patients and family members. They also make bags for mothers who have lost a child and are now expecting another, and for needy veterans.
And the students branched out with a mission of their own. They're sewing bags and stuffing them with toiletry items and other gifts for underprivileged kids.
To pay for materials, they hold yard sales, sell scrap gold and happily accept donations. Many dig into their own pockets to buy fabric pieces, toiletries and small toys.
The idea for the ministry came several years ago when one of Diana's Sew Happy customers mentioned that her nephew's 6-year-old daughter Morgan had been diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma and really needed some prayers. Diana wanted to do more. She offered to make a tote bag for the Plant City girl so she could haul her favorite possessions back and forth from home to the hospital for treatments. She also made a similar bag for Morgan's older sister.
“I ask the Lord for a cure with every stitch,” she says.
Morgan recently returned home from New York, where she received treatment at Sloan-Kettering. Doctors found a spot on her shoulder and spine, and are now treating that. Given all the patients with this disease who don't survive this long, Diana calls Morgan “a little miracle.” She puts the young girl in her prayers every day, along with the hundreds of other children whose stories she has heard over the years since launching her ministry.
Diana says the ministry's purpose is two-fold: It's keeping the lost art of sewing alive, and it's bringing a little joy to people who are in challenging situations.
“They're on a journey they did not sign up for. They didn't plan for this journey. And they certainly aren't looking forward to what's ahead,” Diana says. “So this is our way to help that journey along. We can give them prayers and acts of love.”
The volunteers find their recipients through a variety of channels: the CaringBridge website, contacts at local hospitals, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, other organizations and word of mouth. Typically, they never meet the recipients, arranging the delivery through a third party or sending the bags through the mail.
Last month, a few of the volunteers got the chance to meet some of the kids at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital face to face.
Working with staff, they hosted an activities hour in the lobby, bringing along several of the popular Rainbow Loom kits to make rubber-band bracelets. (As much as Diana would prefer to give sewing lessons, she had to find a more accessible alternative.)
Several pediatric patients, some with tubes in their arms and in wheelchairs, joined in the festivities. Diana moved from table to table, giving them instructions, hugs and words of encouragement. All of them left with a Journey of the Heart backpack or tote.
“Knowing that strangers take their time to do something like this is just so touching,” said Jessica Givens of Tampa, whose 9-year-old daughter, Iyana, was spending several days at St. Joseph's to undergo tests for abdominal pain. “You really need a diversion when you spend a lot of time here. This helps the kids get their minds off being in the hospital.”
Givens paused a moment.
“And it helps the parents, too. It's scary, facing the unknown.”
Diana understands this. She says the Lord has blessed her with a great life — between her and second husband Dorvan, they have six children, 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren to keep them busy. The ministry is her way of giving back.
Now 80, she has a few physical limitations, like a bum knee that requires surgery and will temporarily put her in a walker. Although it may slow her down for a while, she says it also will give her time to develop new ideas to make Journey of the Heart even bigger and better.
“When Dorvan fusses at me to take it easy, I tell him, 'If I stop, I might not be able to get up again,' ” she says with a laugh. “Really, I think the best plan is to stay one step ahead.”
To learn more about the ministry or how to help, go to www.journeyoftheheart.us