Donated denim towered in piles around the church annex. Tables lined the far wall and were scattered with scissors, marking pens and patterns. Empty plastic milk jugs sat on the floor.
The jeans may have been long past the expiration date for wearability, but soon they would become components for shoes to protect the feet of Ugandan children. The shoes would keep the children from contracting crippling parasites while walking barefoot.
“We do four projects a year,” said Marsha Heffner, executive director of Women4given. “We try to do mostly local (projects), but sometimes global, too. It doesn’t take too much to make a difference.”
The independent nonprofit group, called a “giving circle,” is made up of about 45 Christian women and has been around since 2010. Some belong to Christ United Methodist Church in Fairview Heights and on that evening, the church annex near Scott Air Force Base was crowded with women cutting denim, marking sizes, tracing patterns and organizing parts for shoes.
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Women4given does no fund raising. Each member donates $365 a year. Each year it seeks out nonprofit groups and organizations that focus on helping people — women and children, in particular — and ask them to submit a proposal. A committee reviews and narrows down the number of proposals, then all the members vote on which groups will receive grants.
All the money that comes in goes out that year. We give it out. It’s a very simple concept. Everything is volunteer.
Marsha Hessner on Women4given’s method
“All the money that comes in goes out that year,” said Marsha, one of the original members. “We give it out. It’s a very simple concept. Everything is volunteer.”
In its first year of giving in 2011, $7,000 was granted. By 2015, that year’s total was more than $24,000.
Organizations that have received grants are diverse: In 2013, $3,038 went to The Covering House of St. Louis to fund the training of caregivers of victims of sex trafficking. That same year, the Violence Prevention Center in the metro-east received $2,000 to buy beds and bedding for two new bedrooms at its shelter. Also that year, the Bulgarian Orphan Project got $900 for diapers and formula.
“We look at what is going on in the community, what is the need?” said Marsha. “I did not know there was so much need in our community. (Women4given) educated me.”
Between 2011 and 2015, more than $38,000 was given to the Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis, which for several decades has offered the city’s children and teenagers after-school and summer programs, activities, help with homework, recreation, fine arts, a hot meal and more.
“I cannot say enough about these visionaries,” said Chet Cantrell, executive director of the Christian Activity Center. “They are always looking for direct impact. They are a model for people who want to experience joyful giving where it matters.”
Women4given has underwritten an elementary library at the center, but also helped collect books and shelving for it. Chet said the area where the library and classrooms are located is named after Women4given.
“Their impact has grown with them.”
45 Women who are members of Women4given
$100,000 Amount of grants they expect to have given out from 2010 through 2016
That impact is evident: A milestone will be reached this year, Marsha said. “It’s very exciting for us: We will grant $100,000 since 2010. We’ve already done $91,000 and will do $18,000 to $20,000 this year.”
But the important number at the recent project meeting was just 100.
“That’s our goal, to make 100 pairs of shoes,” said Marsha. “One person can easily make one pair of shoes, but a group can make 100.”
Women4given is donating of materials for the shoes to Sole Hope, a nonprofit group in Uganda founded in 2013 to make closed-toe shoes to protect children’s feet from jiggers, a flea that can infect the skin of barefoot kids.
Sole Hope puts people to work in Uganda making shoes constructed from donated denim and plastic milk jugs that are cut from patterns and organized by volunteers across the globe, then shipped there. Women4given will find the funds to pay for the shipping, Board President Betty Nelson said.
Todd Griffin, of Belleville, a medical missionary who has made eight trips to Uganda since 2010, spoke to the group that night of the need for children to own just one pair of close-toed shoes. Jiggers can burrow into skin, then lay eggs that turn into larvae and spread. Left untreated, they can cripple and paralyze. Removal is very painful, Todd said, explaining that razor blades and safety pins are often used.
“So much can come from a pair of jeans,” he told the group. “Hygiene and shoes can eradicate jiggers. It’s life-saving. ... You are an answer to an individual’s prayer.”
Hard at work at a table was Pati Church, another original member of Women4given. Holding down plastic cut from a milk jug, she marked the shoe size of each piece that would be used to trace vamp patterns on denim. A pair of Sole Hope shoes requires 10 pieces: four denim vamps, four denim heels and two plastic heel pieces. Rubber soles will be attached once the shoes are put together in Uganda.
“It’s an amazing group,” Pati said. “It is made up of women who have such a heart for giving, a very selfless group. You feel like you have direct involvement. It’s very hands-on and loving.”
Across the room, Betty Nelson and volunteer Kathy Lynch had their hands on a pair of jeans that stubbornly did not want to have its seams cut open.
“I was inspired to show up,” said Kathy as the pair struggled and laughed as they stretched the material and went to work with scissors.
Watching all the activity around her, Betty was a little in awe.
“Over there are girls from the Belleville East softball team,” she said, grinning. “They came to help.”
Marsha said Friday that 80 pairs of patterns for shoes were made that night, but that members took home their work and expected to produce at least 150 pairs.
They will leave the United States headed for Uganda in the next week or so.
A little something extra will go along, said Betty.
“Each set of patterns will be prayed over.”
- What: A nonprofit group of metro-east Christian women who combine their money and donate it to help other charitable groups, especially those who work with women and children, in the metro-east and around the world.
- Information: www.women4given.com, facebook.com/w4given or email firstname.lastname@example.org