CONCORD -- Barbara Bretzinger was in chronic pain and constantly dealing with the stress of having a son serving in the U.S. Army overseas.
She sought help from medical practitioners who prescribed she take up a hobby.
"They told me I need to focus on something else besides pain," Bretzinger said.
What initially started out as a sewing hobby soon turned into philanthropy. As she began to receive the therapeutic benefits from sewing various projects, she thought about helping other women affected by the stress of having a loved one serving overseas.
She started making things like a poodle skirt for the daughter of an Army wife.
"I met wives of soldiers who were amazed at the baby stuff I made," she said.
The Concord resident started teaching sewing basics to military wives in the various U.S. locations where her son was stationed including Oklahoma, Texas and Fort Drum, N.Y. Bretzinger helped Army wives make simple projects like aprons at the Army Community Service building at Fort Drum.
"One day, I was sewing with these girls who started calling me 'Mom,' and one of them told me, 'I would like a sewing machine but I can't afford one,'" Bretzinger said.
Soon, she began canvassing garage sales in search of used sewing machines, fabric and sewing notions to donate to Army wives.
While back in the Bay Area last August, Bretzinger walked into The Sewing Machine Shop looking for some green and gold thread to make bags out of camouflage fabric. That's when Sheila Lopipero noticed Bretzinger carrying a camouflage bag made out of her son's pants.
"We started talking about her bag and then we thought, let's use the store to help you out," said Lopipero, who works at the Walnut Creek shop. "We could be a collection site so she doesn't have to go to garage sales."
So The Sewing Machine Shop began a sewing machine, fabric and notions drive, and the donations came pouring in almost immediately. Last fall, Bretzinger headed back to Fort Drum with more than 400 pounds of donated fabric collected by The Sewing Machine Shop.
"This stuff would have ended up in a landfill," Bretzinger said. "I'm glad we could reuse it. We're so blessed to have The Sewing Machine Shop sponsor the sewing machine drive."
Bretzinger's efforts have been praised by the United States Army, and she has been asked to set up teaching facilities in several additional locations, Lopipero said.
Krista Auger-Mitchell, relocation readiness program educator at the Army Community Service in Fort Drum, N.Y., sent Bretzinger a note that said there's been more interest in the sewing classes where students come with their own ideas, patterns and projects with volunteer teachers there to assist.
Through Bretzinger's help, a new beginner pajama pants class and a quilting class was well-attended, and all the donated fabric was used for the classes, Auger-Mitchell said.
The sewing students at Fort Drum said they're grateful to Bretzinger for the donations as well as for acquiring sewing skills.
"It's a way to lower my stress and keep me busy. I enjoy it and it allows me to make my own things so I don't have buy them," said Wilmarie Santos.
"I've always liked sewing, but quilting has always been intimidating to me so this class is allowing me to pursue this interest and I'm very excited about that," Heather Rodriguez said. "It also gets me out of the house since I don't currently have a job and my kids are all in school."
Carmen Hammari, volunteer sewing instructor assistant, said she likes attending sewing classes to help others with their various projects.
"It's fun to see so many ideas come together," Hammari said. "In quilting class, I help, but mostly I learn great tricks and ideas. The ladies are so fun to work with. Everyone is kind and patient. This is a fun social time, especially to the wives of deployed soldiers."
Bretzinger said she's happy to share the benefits of sewing skills to help relieve stress and encourage creativity. She hopes to continue collecting sewing machines and supplies to help military families here in the Bay Area.
Monetary donations are also appreciated to help with the costs of shipping sewing machines and supplies. With no funding in the military to provide sewing machines, supplies and fabrics, Bretzinger said she's grateful to everyone for their donations.
"The needs are endless," she said. "I'll see to it that needs are met wherever I go. I'll keep doing this for as long as I can."
The Sewing Machine Shop of Walnut Creek will continue to collect fabric, usable sewing machines and sewing accessories to donate to military families. For information, contact Sheila@sewingmachineshop.com or 925-937-7575.