- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2003

Needles and thread are tools for mending, but in Nettie Graulich’s hands they become tools for learning — and hope.

Mrs. Graulich, 63, teaches sewing and pattern-making at Marymount University, and a Wednesday-night sewing class for a few friends in her home. On Monday, she takes her vocation across the Atlantic to Malawi, where she will teach women how to sew clothes for orphans.

“This is my vacation,” Mrs. Graulich says in an interview in the parlor of her home in Northwest. She is busy this week end organizing supplies and making final plans for the trip.

“The teaching I do during the year is my hobby, so I am already doing what I love to do.”

This is the second summer she will spend in the poor southeast African nation for what she dubbed “Nettie’s Sewing Project,” which last year produced 60 skirts, 35 blouses, 44 pairs of shorts and 38 dresses for girls in the town of Mangochi.

Inspiration for the project came from a single sentence in a newsletter she received in December 2001 from a friend involved in the Malawi Children’s Village project, founded in 1996 by former Peace Corps volunteers: “In some cases, the problem is more basic, such as the child not owning a shirt to wear to school.”

“I read that and knew I had to do something,” she says. “I just didn’t know what it would wind up being.”

Malawi, slightly smaller than Pennsylvania with a population of 10.5 million, is 70 percent Christian, 20 percent Muslim and 10 percent of nativist, or traditional, persuasion. The life expectancy for men and women is 37.5 years; the overall literacy rate is 51 percent, and estimated annual per-capita income is $180.

HIV/AIDS has dramatically changed the landscape of Africa, particularly in Malawi, where approximately 3,000 children in the region around Mangochi have been orphaned. Those children are placed with families in villages and not in large urban orphanages, and many, whose parents have died from AIDS, are cared for by elderly grandparents.

“Primary education is free, but if these children can’t even go to school to learn, what good is it?” Mrs. Graulich asks.

Once she decided to spend last summer in Malawi, teaching young women how to sew, she wrote to friends and family for donations for the project. “I expected people would write back sending $25 and notes saying, ‘Have a nice trip,’” she says. “But when all was said and done, I wrote 84 thank you notes because my friends had donated over $5,000. I was astounded.”

She contacted Malawi Children’s Village project to tell them about her plan and tried to organize the details, but left for Malawi knowing only that she would return to Washington 47 days later. “I guessed that I would figure everything out once I got there, so I took off with my money and a lot of hope, and that was it.”

Bemused friends were not surprised. Her spur-of-the-moment decision was what one friend calls “typical Nettie behavior.”

“She has such boundless energy,” says Morton Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call, the Capitol Hill political journal, and co-host (with Fred Barnes) of Fox News Channel’s “Beltway Boys.” He has been a family friend for more than 30 years. “How many people do you know who would give up their summer vacation to start a project like this where the women are so horribly poor? She is just enormously generous.”

Her 28-hour journey from the District to Mangochi begins with a flight to Atlanta to transfer to a 16-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa and a long drive to the Malawian capital of Lilongwe and finally to Mangochi.

Once in the village of Mangochi, Mrs. Graulich sets up her sewing center in the empty portion of a building in the center of town and stocks it with fabric, sewing materials and manual sewing machines.

“I purchased everything from the local merchants. They needed the money and, again, I just wanted to give something back. There were three places to buy different fabric, so I just split what I needed between the three different places,” she says. “We had so many different choices of colors and patterns, and the clothes looked wonderful. And they were so proud once they were finished.”

The Malawi women are anxious to learn. Classes are held Monday through Thursday from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, to give them time to reach home before dark. The summer months in the United States are the “mild” winter months in Malawi, where the highs reach “only in the 80s” but the sun sets by 6 p.m.

Mrs. Graulich vowed to make sure the skills she taught the women are continually in use by the time she returned home last summer. She knew she would be going back to Malawi again this year, next year, and for as many years as she can.

“Many of these people have become like family to me,” she says , pacing through a living room filled with unpacked suitcases and necessities, such as coffee filters and an over-the-counter antibiotic for insect bites. Mrs. Graulich will return on Sept. 1, two days before classes start again at Marymount.

She has dedicated this summer’s trip to Millie Kondracke, her best friend of 30 years, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Millie’s struggle, she says, gives her the strength to make it through the summer away from her family, two sons and two grandsons.

“I can’t wait. This is what my summer vacation is all about.”

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