Wrapping up a caring career

by Cynthia Martens

“The doctor is in,” Milford Klaassen says whenever he walks into his Aunt Justina’s apartment at Parkside Homes in Hillsboro and sees her ripping up white sheets for bandages.

Justina Klaassen makes bandages for the Mennonite Central Committee, a worldwide relief and development agency supported by North American Mennonites.

As she works, she wears a protective piece resembling a surgical mask over her mouth to keep from inhaling the fine white fibers as they float in the air around her.

“It’s just one of those little dust protectors-we got her some at the hardware store,” Milford said. “And she wears a scarf over her head so dust doesn’t get in her hair. It’s amazing how much fine dust there is when she rips those.”

After eight to 10 years of ripping, stitching and rolling bandages to help strangers and clinics in far-away lands, Justina, 94, is retiring. Her hearing and eyesight are finally failing her after so many years.

She was born in 1908 in Saskatchewan, Canada. The day she was born, snow drifts reached the roof of her house. When she about 11/2 to 2 years old, she and her family moved to Hillsboro, which became her permanent home.

After she finished school, she began working in different homes. Later, she worked at Salem Hospital, then in the Tabor College cafeteria.

Her family circle included one brother, Milford’s father; one sister; and later encompassed cousins, nieces and nephews.

Justina has never married.

When old enough to join sewing circles, She began quilting, tying comforts and sewing clothes.

Janell Klaassen, Milford’s wife, said they received the last quilt made by Justina before her eyesight deteriorated too far.

Justina used an electric sewing machine for her projects before she gave it away in preference for her trusty treadle machine.

“I sew short ends, and I like that better than the electric machine,” Justina said. “Since my eyesight isn’t too good anymore, I prefer this. I can’t even thread the needle, and Janell has to come and thread the machine for me.”

A self-described independent woman, Justina tries to be careful not to get caught with an unthreaded needle.

“When the thread comes out, then I’m lost,” she said.

She began making bandages when she was unable to continue quilting.

“There was a lady at our sewing circle who was trying to get someone started in rolling bandages,” Justina said. “The other ladies weren’t interested in that, and she always worked on me. Finally, I gave in after I couldn’t do so much quilting and tying comforts for the sewing circle for the Mennonite Central Committee-then I started.”

She doesn’t remember getting any initial instructions but does recall being told the size.

“They told me how wide and how big a roll,” Justina said.

Lorene Kaufman, workroom supervisor at the MCC in North Newton, said for the last 50 years, a majority of these bandages have been sent to Third World countries where medical supplies are often too costly or difficult to obtain.

Kaufman said some of Justina’s bandages may have been shipped over the years to Bangladesh because that country gets many bandages from MCC.

“I’m sure they’re used in hospitals,” she said. “They started out using them in the leprosy hospitals for leprosy patients.”

The bandages are packed in 65-gallon drums to be shipped by boat.

“They’re sterilized as they use them because they would become unsterile in shipping and handling,” Kaufman said.

The destinations vary each year, but in 2001, MCC shipped to places like Burundi, Haiti, Nicaragua, Serbia, Tanzania and the Middle East.

The amount ranged from about 550 pounds shipped to Haiti to more than 17,000 pounds to Tanzania last year.

The total number of pounds shipped for 2001 was nearly 28,500.

“A lot of our bandages are made by retirement homes and nursing homes,” Kaufman said. “They come and get the sheets, take them back, make the bandages, bring them back to MCC, and that’s part of their activities.”

The sheets from MCC are donated, often coming from a linen supplier in Hutchinson.

Milford’s mother, Rubena Bartel, brings Justina sheets from MCC or the Et Cetera Shop, Janell said.

“Then I get some from our sewing circle sometimes-it’s the Parkview Women’s Mission Society,” Justina said.

Two pieces of cardboard serve as Justina’s guide for the size of the bandages, which are rolled up to either 21/2- or 3-inches wide by about 21/4 inches deep.

The majority of her rolls are of the smaller size.

“I take the seams out of the sheets,” she said. “I open up the ends and tear off the salvage on the sides. I use just the scissors, and when I get the right end of the thread, I can unravel it. But I don’t always get the right end, and I have to do it the slow way.”

Justina puts on her mask when ripping up the sheets and has plastic sheets under her to catch all the fibers that fly in the air as she works.

She seams the ends of the strips and tightly rolls them until they reach the desired size. A few hand stitches tacked at the end of the roll tie it off and prevent unraveling.

“If it’s a big sheet I get about six rolls from it,” Justina said. “I don’t do it every day, but if I don’t have anything else to do, then I do this.”

Retirement from her project is looming.

“I have this sheet, that’s a big sheet, and when I get through with that, then that’s the last one,” Justina said. “And then I have about five smaller ones yet, and then I’m going to quit.”

And what will she do with all her free time?

“Sit and look, I guess,” she said. “And just do my little housework and make my meals and take care of myself.”

Faced with failing eyesight, she said she is also plagued with soreness in her hands.

“I really don’t have arthritis, but they hurt once and awhile. So I think it’s time I quit. My hearing is going, my eyes are going, but I can still eat.”

Supported by Social Security, Justina lives in a tidy one-bedroom apartment at Parkside and uses her funds with frugality when she needs groceries, Milford said.

“Every two weeks or so, we’ll run into the grocery store and buy groceries for her and spend about $20 to $30,” he said. “And when we come back, she’s concerned people at the grocery store are going to think poorly of her because she spends that much money.”

How does she reflect on all the years making bandages?

“It was for a good cause, and it was hard to find someone to do it, so I finally gave in,” she said. “I thought maybe it was something worthwhile for others, even though sometimes I thought I was just working with rags.

“I knew it was going to be used somewhere.”

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