Sixteen years ago Patricia Will heard from a friend working in Malawi that the newborn babies were being taken home wrapped in newspaper. She decided to challenge some people in her parish in Bexley to make matinee jackets and shifts to replace the newspapers. Skip forward a decade-and-a-half and that group, now with 35-plus members and called ‘Gabbies Sewing Angels’, makes over 8000 items annually. They get shipped across the world where they do everything from making new babies more comfortable, to allowing girls to get an education. Without fuss or grandiosity Patricia, along with her team and long-time collaborator Betty Scott have grown a ministry from a tiny beginning to one that now stretches across a number of parishes, has Catholic and non-Catholic members, involves men and women, and people from across a range of cultures and ages.
Pat sees Gabbies as a pastoral care group first and foremost as it brings together people who they have otherwise been disconnected from their parish community, or lonely or isolated. Perhaps it is because of that approach that the group has just grown and grown by word of mouth and people and materials ‘just turn up’, as Pat says. Gabbies is a group that exemplifies what it means to begin with the community you are in and then unceasingly find ways to connect that community more deeply and broadly. The group has connections with a local golf team, a nearby Baptist Church, neighbours who have seen an advert sor had a chat with someone somewhere and now donate time or sewing goods, and there is a seemingly endless rotation of people from across the community who connect in a myriad of ways with Gabbies’ work. Whenever they can, the group looks to their local people and places to grow the work and let people know there is a welcome place for them should they like to share or learn sewing skills. Because of this they were recently presented with a ‘St George Community Award’ from their local Member, Mark Coure.
And yet for a group that has its eyes so firmly fixed on its own community it has a global reach. When you visit Gabbies ‘headquarters’ in the parish hall at St Gabriel’s you can’t help but be a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of goods and the amount of work being done. Collectively, the group makes clothing for children of all ages, little bags filled with toys and hair bows, baby clothes, beanies, carry bags filled with stationery (housed in handmade pencil cases!), sanitary items, blankets and more recently some warm clothes for Syrians struggling through the war in their country. The room buzzes with the rhythms of the many overlockers and sewing machines, all bought from a grant won from a religious order. On a day when the whole team shows up there is often not enough space.
After the initial clothes for Malawian babies, Pat and Betty learned of the need for items in Timor through some of Pat’s Josephite teaching connections. At one time the two visited Timor and ran sewing workshops with Timorese women to help them be able to set up their own small businesses and support their families and communities. Over time, Gabbies also began partnerships with other organisations and through informal connections. One of the member’s nephews, for example, had experience living in Fiji and now takes boxes of goods on his visits or sends them on one of the Cont. overleaf Cont. from previous container-sized shipments he organises. More formal associations with Australian Doctors International and Samaritan’s Purse Australia means Gabbies has contributed to better maternal and infant health outcomes in PNG and brightened countless children’s lives with some of life’s necessities and tiny luxuries like a soft toy or bag of marbles.
One of their most recent projects is with an organisation called ‘Days for Girls’. This a growing worldwide programme that provides quality, sustainable hygiene products to girls who otherwise have no options. Crucially, aside from affirming their dignity, the programme means girls are able to go to school on days they would have normally had to stay home. Girls can miss up to 8 months of school every three years, and are much more likely to entirely drop out because of these regular days away. These incredibly simple kits can have profound long term effects on not just the girl but her family, present and future, and even entire villages. If a girl can get just one extra year of schooling her income can grow by 15-20%, she is more likely to have and exercise choice, marry later and have a real chance of ending a cycle of poverty.* This is no insignificant step towards redressing the global educational disadvantages girls and women suffer, and no small part of the puzzle of eradicating poverty—as the UN and almost every major NGO has acknowledged, if you educate a girl, you can change the world.
Gabbies Angels is a fine example of what we are capable of doing from within our own parishes and neighbourhoods and how that has almost unlimited potential to reach out to the most unlikely of places and improve the lives of people we will never see. For that reason it is Pat’s dream that satellite Gabbies groups might be set up right across our Archdiocese; a small group planting itself somewhere and growing out and deeper into the community right around them. Although they don’t call themselves a ‘social justice group’ Gabbies is showing the double benefit these types of ministries can create—they rebuild some of that community and connection that our parishes need, while actively living out and spreading the Gospel message.
Is a Gabbies possible in your parish? Maybe it won’t be by sewing but either you or someone in your parish or a nearby one will know of a need somewhere—maybe it’s a buddy programme in local nursing homes; maybe a disadvantaged school could do with some extra support or donated goods; are there crisis domestic violence services nearby that need assistance; or maybe your local hospital has unfair parking rules that prevent families from tending to their sick—one local community in Sydney came together over this kind of issue and changed a lot of lives by rectifying it. Working for social justice intimidates a lot of people, it can seem too big, too confusing, but if, amongst all the other lessons, Gabbies can teach us anything it is that it is important just to start. It is simply a matter of really listening to people and finding the inevitable needs and challenges they have. Then just start. Like the endless donations of fabric, buttons and lace at Gabbies, the rest will come in time.
Many thanks to Patricia Will and the Gabbies team for hosting the JPO for an afternoon!
Gabbies Sewing Angels meet every Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30am to 3:00pm at St Gabriel’s Church Hall, 53 Stoney Creek Rd, Bexley. All visitors are welcome! Find them on Facebook here, or call the Justice and Peace Office on 02 9307 8465, or email us for contact numbers.
*Source: Days For Girls.
All Images Courtesy Gabbies Angels
*Source: Days for Girls.