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From the heart with love … Laurel Elementary students receive warm gifts

By Rebecca Barnhart-Allan

Fall is here in the Appalachians and winter soon to follow, so when Sharon Randolph and her mother, Deborah Nichols, contacted The East Tennessee Foundation out of Knoxville, Tennessee and asked them for a community in Tennessee that got really cold in the winter, they weren’t just trying to avoid the snow. What they actually wanted to do was to help keep some of its most deserving residents stay warm. That is when they were put in touch with Terry Holley, Sr. Vice President of the Johnson County Foundation, and the Principal of Laurel Elementary School, Betty Brown.
During the previous holiday season, several children at Laurel had asked if perhaps Secret Santa might bring them blankets on his next go ’round, so Principal Brown was delighted when she was put in touch with these two amazing ladies who wanted to provide just that. Deborah Nichols, a lifetime seamstress, and her daughter Sharon Randolph, an avid quilter, put their heads together and came up with a wonderful idea as to how they could give back to the community in loving memory of husband and father, David Nichols, who passed away in November of 2010.
“My father was always helping everybody. He was very community minded,” relates Sharon. She went on to say that since both she and her mother did a lot of sewing, that that would be a great way for them to give back. Their first project involved sewing dresses and shorts for underprivileged children in Ile a’ Vache, Haiti and Old Bight Orphanage on Cat Island, Bahamas. Along the way, Sharon and Deborah started a blog ( and informally named their two-lady club “Sewing Hands.“ After completing their first goal, they began to look for another project but they were unsure of where to go from there. They decided upon providing quilts and fleece blankets to the colder regions of Tennessee. A friend told Sharon about the East Tennessee Foundation and that was the start to the path that led to Laurel Elementary School.
After meeting Principal Brown and the wonderful students at Laurel, the two ladies decided to provide fleece blankets to the kindergarten through second grades, and handmade quilts to the third through sixth grades. But the commitment came with a small problem. How were these two ladies going to provide so many quilts and blankets to an entire school on their own and in so short a time? They decided that they would have to make their goal the following fall season, October of 2012. That is also when Sharon and Deborah turned to their blog and put out the S.O.S. They began to receive donations in the form of fabric, batting, thread, and sewing machines from friends, relatives, church members and anyone who had an item to donate or a moment to give. They were joyfully surprised at the tremendous outpouring of kindness from so many people. In the process, they also gained 14 new volunteers from all over the country who were willing to sew quilt tops, dresses and shorts. Sharon, a Professor of Criminal Justice at South College in Knoxville even solicited the help of her students in tying 18 of the fleece blankets. In 2011, the group produced 224 dresses and 210 shorts, followed by 98 fleece blankets and quilts at the end of the 2012 school year for the graduating sixth graders of Laurel Elementary. They pledged to come back the following fall term and bring blankets and quilts for every single student in the school. And to everyone’s delight, they did just that.
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.