MOUNT JOY, Pa. — The Mount Joy 4-H Community Club’s advanced sewing project each spring usually finds young participants testing their skills by sewing a summer dress or shirt. They sew under the watchful eye of instructor Kathy Brubaker who has coordinated the sewers’ efforts for nearly two decades.

This year, as they were about to meet at Brubaker’s home in March with their sewing machines, patterns and fabric, all 4-H clubs — and most other group programs for kids — were put on hold by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We thought this might be a short delay,” Brubaker said, “and we’d be able to start up at the end of April, so we waited. We were wrong.”

As April rolled into May, Katina Musser, the director of the Mount Joy 4-H Community Club, realized that if they weren’t flexible with the 30 planned 4-H activities for the spring, it would be a lost season. All in-person 4-H activities had been canceled due to COVID-19. The club had approximately 30 programs planned, from candy making and cooking to cross-stitch and woodworking, with 120 children signed up and the projects overdue to start.

“We thought we might be able to run some programs online,” said Musser.

She partnered with regional Penn State Extension’s 4-H educator, Lori Little, who walked the Mount Joy project directors through a sample class using Zoom software to do virtual video conferencing. The technology was new to everyone, but Brubaker and a number of other 4-H instructors took a leap of faith and committed to do their instruction virtually.

“For sewing, like all the projects, we had to make adjustments,” Brubaker said. “First, we decided on a group project rather than individual projects, like graduation or summer dresses, where it would be difficult to give hands-on help via Zoom.”

Brubaker’s father-in-law, Dr. Ken Brubaker, who is the director of the Masonic Village Hospice Program, suggested making comfort dolls for memory-loss patients at hospital emergency rooms.

“It was a great idea,” Kathy Brubaker said, adding that the club’s participants — Meghan Becker, Sydney Brubaker, Makenna Collins, Jenavieve Hottenstein, Amber and Faith Musser, Sydney Moyer, and Sienna Tyson — all embraced it and were excited to turn their sewing into a service project.

“The kids were all good with online learning,” Brubaker said, “as they had been using Zoom or Schoology, their schools’ distance-learning program. It was the instructors who had to adapt to working without being in the same room as students or being able to look over their shoulders as needed.”

Her daughter, Sydney Brubaker, 15, was the team leader for the project. She has sewn everything from pillowcases to doll clothes and her own clothing for the past seven years.

Musser’s daughters, Faith, 11, and Amber, 9, who was the youngest sewer, also were enthusiastic.

“It’s fun,” Faith said. Amber thought it was a good skill to learn.

For the comfort doll project, Kathy Brubaker prepared zip-close bagged kits for each youth in the club. The kit included a pattern and the fabric needed to complete the dolls. The kits were all picked up, contactless, before the first session.

“We did a step-by-step approach,” Kathy Brubaker said. “When we met each week online, we did one portion of the sewing together, after my daughter Sydney did the day’s step first, so the girls could watch. Then, they followed her lead from home and showed me the result via Zoom.”

“It was a learning process,” Kathy Brubaker said, “but everyone worked together to get the job done.”

Ken Brubaker helped the girls to understand why comfort dolls were important at the first club session. He said research shows that many elderly female and male patients who suffer from memory loss (commonly referred to as dementia) are comforted and calmed when in emergency rooms for treatment or in a nursing home, if they get to hold a doll or soft toy animal like a cat or dog. It reminds them of a time when they were young and had a pet or doll of their own and helps eliminate their anxiety.

The 4-H Community Club’s sewers even decked out their dolls with 4-H imprinted, fabric hospital gowns they made from material that Kathy Brubaker found in the sale bin at a Jo-Ann Fabric Store.

The dolls will be donated to Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s Lancaster General Hospital.

“What we also had to adjust with this summer was the loss of our in-person, 4-H Round-Up awards program gathering,” Kathy Brubaker said, “where participants display their projects (that are) judged by instructors and ribbons awarded for their work.”

Musser said that for 2020, the Round-Up will be held virtually sometime in August. Participants will present completed projects to club members.

“Instructors have been encouraged to recognize their work with a blue ribbon for adjusting to the new normal to complete their projects,” she added.

“Like all other organized activities for children across the country, we had to adapt, and adapt quickly,” Musser said.

Brubaker added, “We weren’t sure how using Zoom conferencing would work out in these situations, and we, as well as our youth participants, were pleased. It went much better than expected.”

Both Musser and Brubaker hope the 4-H and other youth groups will be able to return to face-to-face meetings and instruction for 2021, but they are confident they can do things online again if necessary.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance correspondent and photojournalist in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

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