Comforters change things: Material resources from Harleysville to the world

Conrad Erb

_mg_0821.jpgThis summer, a torrent of rockets and shells fell on the earth as Lebanese militant fighters associated with Hezbollah clashed for 34 days with the Israeli military. By the time a ceasefire came into effect, over 1100 Lebanese and 150 Israelis had lost their lives, and over 1 million civilians were displaced as a result of the conflict, according to Israeli and Lebanese government sources.

The effects of the war have put a tremendous strain on the infrastructure of the country, and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has launched a relief effort to deliver close to $1 million in material aid to the people of Lebanon. Over 5000 miles away from Beirut and Jerusalem, nestled in the rolling farmland of Harleysville, PA, a long, narrow building sits on a small hill. While it may not appear to have a connection to Lebanon, it is an integral part of MCC’s relief efforts there and in many other countries around the world.

_mg_0869.jpgAt the Harleysville Material Resource Center (MRC), comforters live up to their name. Each week, scores of volunteers from surrounding communities gather to transform leftover materials into cozy bedspreads that Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) incorporates into their relief work in impoverished or trauma-stricken areas. People all over the world, including many in our own country, receive well-crafted comforters and necessary life supplies—a true “comfort” in a time of need.

MRC is one of nine centers in North America that collect and consolidate material aid in support of MCC’s material relief programs. With over 50 regular quilting volunteers, 45 churches that donate materials, and numerous community groups that contribute additional time and resources, MRC offers strong support to national and international relief work.

A small building, nestled in the rolling farmland of eastern Pennsylvania, houses this remarkable venture. Inside, a group of volunteers surrounds three wooden frames, chatting and making jokes as they quilt and knot comforters. The combined support of churches, community groups and individual volunteers yields impressive results: over the past two years, MRC has supplied over 2,500 comforters to the material resource center in Ephrata, PA, from where they are shipped overseas to support MCC’s relief efforts. The largest comforter donations come from a group of volunteers living at the Souderton Mennonite Homes. “They do 40 comforters each month!” Dorothy Detweiler reports.

MRC is also home to a major relief kit program involving health kits, school kits, newborn kits and kits for people living with AIDS. Materials for the kits are collected from local church donations and then wrapped in colorful fabric bags, tied with ribbon and packaged for transport to the resource center in Ephrata, from where they are distributed to countries throughout the world. According to Mildred Moore, warehouse coordinator at MRC, recent relief efforts have included shipments to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina in the southern U.S. and of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The Ephrata resource center recently sent 6,000 kits to Jordan for distribution in the region, and the center is collecting items that will be part of a major campaign by MCC to provide material assistance to the people of Lebanon in the aftermath of a devastating war between Lebanese militant Hezbollah fighters and Israel.

img_9975.jpgIn most cases, the assembled kits are distributed to thousands of people around the world, and the volunteers who pack the kits never meet the recipients. In March 2006, however, Mildred had an opportunity to participate in an MCC-sponsored delegation to distribute kits in Central America. The delegation went to Honduras to visit the Mama Project, a children and youth health and education program. Mildred saw a bundle of school kits being distributed and recognized that they were from Harleysville. “We were privileged to hand out the kits.” Mildred says, “Not all of us can to go Honduras, but this is a way to serve MCC and offer another kind of comfort.”

Fabric is collected from Care and Share Shoppes in Souderton and cut into squares that are used to make patches for quilts. Is there any material that can’t be used for some project? “Not many!” She laughs. “We don’t throw much away.” Mildred turns around to open a room where rolls of fabric six feet high lean against the walls. Last year, a drapery store went out of business, and the excess inventory filled the entire room. The rolls of fabric are now used as backing for quilts—and already half of the rolls have been used by volunteer quilt-makers.

Although MRC supports the work of MCC, Norman Good and Dorothy Detwiler are proud to point out that MRC receives no financial support from MCC, relying entirely on private donations for its operations. Norman explains that the total annual operating budget of the center, including rent, utilities, telephone, and miscellaneous costs, is only $5,000. “We are very low budget,” he says with a laugh. To support its operational expenses, the MRC holds an annual fundraising dinner and has a volunteer program making rags to sell to area oil companies. “Everything is voluntary, one hundred percent,” says Norman.

_mg_0847.jpgNext year, MRC will begin an exciting chapter in its history. The center recently received a donation of nine acres of farmland near Elroy, PA, from retired farmer Nelson Souder. MRC’s new resource center will share space with Mennonite Disaster Service, the MCC’s Meat Canning program, and a storage facility for Care & Share Shoppes. The new center will occupy nearly 15,000 square feet of warehouse space and offices—six times as large as the current building. Groundbreaking is scheduled to begin in late 2007, and fundraising efforts have already begun. With a budget just under $2 million, of which $50,000 has already been raised, Nelson is optimistic about the fundraising goals: “Based on the influence of MCC and the fact that we are working with Franconia Mennonite Conference, Eastern District Conference, and the Brethren in Christ churches, we have a strong base of support to draw from. I have every bit of confidence that they will support the project.”

MCC Material Resource Center of Harleysville

MCC Material Resource Center of Harleysville serves as a liaison between the MCC Material Resource Center of Ephrata and peace churches of Eastern Pennsylvania. Through this outreach, we share God’s love, hope, and joy in the name of Jesus Christ.