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Needle-and-thread brigade has a pattern for mission

Needle-and-thread brigade has a pattern for mission

Needle-and-thread brigade has a pattern for mission

2 October 2020

Red Shield Defence Services representative at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, Major Penni Roden, and some of the members of her Spouse Walk and Talk group.

By Darryl Whitecross

Masks for Australian soldiers on deployment, crocheted rugs for newborn babies of defence force personnel, quilted blankets for hospitalised family members of servicemen and home-made meals for those suffering a crisis are all part of the ministry of a team of dedicated women in Far North Queensland.

The team is coordinated by Major Penni Roden, The Salvation Army Red Shield Defence Services (RSDS) representative, who has taken on this mission with a passion after picking up the ‘sewing bug’ a matter of months ago.

Penni is attached to the RSDS community engagement department and is stationed at Townsville’s Lavarack Barracks, which is a major Australian Army base and home to the 3rd and 11th Brigade.

Penni said she had taken up sewing classes recently as part of a vision to link defence force personnel and their families to the wider Salvation Army program and its people. Those classes spread out into making quilts and COVID-19 masks.

Through these activities, Penni said she discovered that not only was there a growing sense of community between the women who made up her ‘needle-and-thread brigade’, but it had become the mission opportunity for which she was looking.

Recently, Penni put a call out across the city and then the nation, for people to make masks to add to the kit bags of soldiers being deployed around the world or provide the materials for her group to make them.

Her initial plan was to get 2000 masks, either donated or made by her sewing circle, but that proved a difficult mission to fulfil, so, after she gathered as many masks as she could – less than 100 – she moved on to her next idea.

Major Penni Roden and one of the masks her sewing group made for defence force soldiers on deployment.

Soldiers now on deployment do have some of the reusable and washable masks made by Penni’s battalion. These were made in plain shades matching the camouflage colours of the soldier uniforms. Some masks were sold to buy materials to make more while others – “the pretty ones” – were given to family members and also sent across the border to southern states for use where mask-wearing was mandatory when outdoors.

“One of the things that I wanted to do as a beginning sewer myself was to be able to give people a hands-on kit where they could actually make a mask in about half an hour from beginning to end,” Penni said.

After having found the mask pattern, she passed it around the group and, over about two weeks, produced reusable and washable masks – in plain camouflage colours – for the soldiers to take overseas.

“The thing that made it stand out for me in terms of a connection to my ministry was that people really want to help and, certainly up here, the defence community wants to help each other,” Penni said.

Penni said that when Townsville was flooded last year, a defence force spouse, who had connections with The Salvation Army and knew that she had been learning to sew, suggested a group get together weekly to made quilts for those who had lost homes.

She said she and her husband, Major Nigel Roden, had been given a quilt and laundry bag as part of the successful Aussie Hero Quilts initiative and so wanted to create a ministry along similar lines. “What we’re trying to do is capture the same sort of reaction on a local level – for people to feel that somebody has cared enough about them to make them something that is useful,” Penni said. “That’s our goal in doing this.”

While the craft group had “moved on a little bit” from the mask-making project, Penni said they were coming up with new ways to keep interested and challenged, including wanting to learn to crochet and knit.

“A project that I currently have going is what I call Operation Blankets of Love,” Penni said. “I have Salvationist craft groups from a few different places – mostly down the eastern seaboard – who crochet blankets for me that I’ve been giving to defence families who have a new baby or have a family member in hospital for an extended period of time. It’s about making people feel seen and valued for who they are and that we can celebrate life moments with them.”

Everyone is encouraged to be part of the group to knit or crochet baby blankets or make quilts. “We distribute all of those locally here to defence families and also veterans,” Penni said.

In the famous words of the advertising promo, “But wait, there’s more”, Penni’s sense of mission and building community does not end there. “In the past few weeks, we’ve actually had two other opportunities open up amazingly.”

One Penni has called Spouse Walk and Talk. “It’s a walking group for defence partners, whose spouses serve. It’s a group of women who wanted to get out and go for a walk in the sunshine and connect.” The first walk attracted eight – “which was just fantastic”, Penni said.

The second is to work with the Defence Community Organisation’s specialist team of social workers and family support workers. “When they get a ‘situation’ that they can’t really help much with in terms of assistance, they refer those families on to us so that we can get them community support in place around them,” Penni said.

As part of that initiative, Penni said she had launched a “meal chain” website called ‘Meal Tree’ where people could sign up to offer to make meals for people in a difficult situation. Almost immediately, ‘Meal Tree’ had an impact when Penni was able to provide meals to one of the craft group women whose husband had major surgery that day.

“I took two meals around to her house and said: “I know that you’re not going to have time to cook meals this week. These are for you. With the meal train in place, defence family members and local Salvos have stepped up to say: ‘I'm happy to cook a meal for someone who needs it’.

“It’s really important to me in all of these things that I acknowledge the people who have contributed, so, when we wrap a blanket for a new baby, I put a card in it that says: ‘Handmade with love by [for example] Mary Smith’.

Someone donated a whole stack of handmade cards so we put a handmade card in the meal bag that says: ‘This is for you. Your meal was made by Mary Smith. We hope this makes your day a little bit easier’ or something like that.

“I’m just a Sallyman in the Townsville community. I support the traditional way but, much more than that, I’m finding that there are so many other opportunities to connect with families on a personal level but also to connect with families as a community and to be able to let defence families know that they’re valued by Salvos and by each other.

“What I’m doing here is I’m trying to facilitate links to Salvos in the community. We’ve got mums with bubs and prams so I’m giving them some information about ‘mainly music’ and other groups that the Salvos here in the community engage in with people.

“I‘ve lived through a deployment when I was pregnant. I‘ve experienced the hardship that comes with having your partner away for a long period of time and life happens and kids get sick and all that sort of stuff. So the things that really make my ministry worthwhile are those times when I get to speak into somebody’s darkness and to be able to hold a bit of a light for them while they go through what they have to go through. That’s what makes me tick.”

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