11Now a resident of the James Steam Mill in Newburyport, Eaton still has her hands in fabric, only now she lends her talents to charity by creating fabric tote bags filled with school supplies for children in Third World countries.
"It started after the tsunami (in the Indian Ocean) in 2004," Eaton, 80, said. "My daughter and I decided to make bags to fill and send where there is a need."
In conjunction with People's United Methodist Church in Newburyport, Eaton and her daughters, Donna Mansur and Brenda McDonald, both of Salem, N.H., are hoping to ultimately create 200 bags for needy children. They've finished more than 50 so far.
The finished bags are sent to the United Methodist Committee on Relief in Alabama, which then sends them around the world to people in need. While Eaton and her daughters focus on school supplies, the United Methodist Committee on Relief collects a variety of relief supply kits for distribution, including health, bedding and sewing kits. The kits help to care for vulnerable people during times of crisis as well as sustain everyday life by providing basic necessities to people without access to essential supplies.
Once a week, Eaton's daughters come to the community room in the James Steam Mill to help her cut, sew and fill each bag.
"We make about 10 bags in three hours," Eaton said. "Right now we have 55 to ship, 15 made and 20 cut and ready to be sewn."
Eaton's bags are crafted from different fabric and then each filled with two spiral notebooks, 12 pieces of construction paper, 24 crayons, blunt-nose scissors, six pencils, a ruler that marks both inches and centimeters, a small pencil sharpener and an eraser.
"I hope they go to Africa, because there is a lot of need there," Eaton said. She then added, "But as long as they go to where they are needed."
To raise money for fabric, supplies and shipping, Eaton relies on donations. She also holds what she's coined "Lobster Luncheons" at the James Steam Mill, with the admission she charges her fellow residents going toward the bag making. The lobster rolls are donated by a wholesale fish market where Mansur works. The next luncheon fundraiser is set for May 28.
"We get 40 to 50 people and charge $10, and a lot of people donate desserts, etc.," Eaton said. "All the money goes toward shopping for bag supplies."
An Amesbury native, Eaton spent many years in South Hampton where she raised her three children — Mansur, McDonald and Calvin Eaton Jr. of Salisbury. But then in her 50s, she found herself single and ready to try something new.
"I worked at the Amesbury Playhouse, cooking, prompting, costuming," Eaton said, noting she did just about everything there until she left. "I met a professional stage hand, and he said to put a resume together and get a union card."
Weeks later, Eaton hit the road, touring first with "The King and I" and later "Man of La Mancha," which she accompanied on its international tour as a wardrobe supervisor for nearly 15 years.
"It could be lonely on the road, when your family is back here and you are on the West Coast, but I've been to 40 of the 50 states and most of the Canadian provinces," Eaton said.
In 1990, Eaton moved to the James Steam Mill but has kept busy tailoring her neighbors' garments.
"I'm still so busy taking things in and out and up and down," Eaton said with a laugh. "I'm currently making my granddaughter's wedding gown for her August wedding."
But Eaton, who is also a longtime member of the Newburyport Choral Society, reserves plenty of time for sewing the school supply bags for needy children. And she invites anyone who is interested in lending a hand to join her.
"It's a mission project," Eaton said. "We have a lot of fun making them."
She added, "Making the bags keeps me sewing."
In the Bag
Donations to Joan Eaton's mission project may be dropped off at the James Steam Mill office, 1 Charles St., Newburyport, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and People's United Methodist Church, 64 Purchase St., Newburyport, on Sundays from 8:30 to 11 a.m.
For more on the United Methodist Committee on Relief's efforts to distribute relief kits, visit http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/getconnected/supplies/.