Julee Schwieger picks up a handful of colorful scraps of fabric, selects the most cheerful, then leans over her sewing machine to begin carefully creating a 20-inch circle to stitch a child’s surgical cap.
The six or so kid-friendly, bouffant hats that she makes on this day will find their way to Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children, bringing warmth and comfort to anxious children battling infection and disease who are scheduled for surgery.
Julee donates about 100 whimsical surgical caps every month to kids at the hospital, and the expressions on the faces of children as they choose their favorite is priceless. In these precious moments, the fear and anxiety of surgery is momentarily wiped away by the kindness of one mom who conceived of a special way to benefit others by simply doing what she loves. She has named her enterprise Julee Cares.
“I’m a mother and grandmother and making a small difference to a child during a nervous time is very fulfilling to me. It just fills my heart with so much purpose,” she said. “I’ve been a mom there (at the hospital). My son had many surgeries there. We’ve grown up in this area so we are very familiar with A.I. So to be able to have that as part of the process is kind of a neat thing.”
Julee came up with her idea after reading an article about a hospital in the Midwest where volunteers were making surgical caps for young patients using scraps of material.
“I thought to myself – I can do that. What a great way to reuse so many scraps of colorful fabrics I already have.”
Caps with cartoon characters and superheroes
She designed one hat by constructing a template and eventually met with the director of surgical services at Nemours/AIDHC, who immediately embraced the idea.
There are physical benefits to the colorful caps as well. Until Julee presented her concept to hospital administrators, all pediatric patients undergoing surgery would wear disposable paper hats. But Schwieger’s cloth caps are thicker, providing greater warmth in surgery. (About 900 children undergo surgery every month at Nemours/AIDHC. So, the hospital can’t always offer one of her creations.)
“Julee’s inspired and unsolicited contribution speaks volumes about her as a person and her desire to make a positive impact on the surgical experience of our pediatric patients,” said Sharon Udy-Janczuk, MSN, director of perioperative services at Nemours.
Julee sews a variety of sizes – for infants to adolescents. “The patterns and colors are bright, reflecting our patients’ passions for cartoon characters and superheroes,” said Udy-Janczuk. She added that Julee’s caps are a fun thing for patients to be involved with and that choosing one they liked has a calming effect on the children, helps reduces stress, and even sparks conversation.
Before the caps make their way to the children, they are washed in a special hospital laundering and sterilization process. That same process allows the caps to be reused. But most patients request to take their caps home with them.
Julee gladly accepts donations of fabrics, which can be sent by contacting her via email: JuleeCares@yahoo.com.
Schwieger sews Memory Bears, too
Perched on the windowsill of Julee’s sewing room in her Greenville residence are several adorable teddy bears – also made by hand by Schwieger. These “Memory Bears” are sewn with pieces of clothing from a deceased loved one and represent yet another way the selfless seamstress gives back.
A former human resources executive with 25 years of corporate experience, Schwieger says she’s always had a desire to lend a hand and “solve problems.” A few years ago, she was introduced to volunteers at a hospice group in Pennsylvania. When she shared her ability to sew, that inspired the idea of creating and donating memory bears to family members of departed loved ones. Since then she’s donated hundreds to grieving families.
“We started this program that provided memory bears to family members of relatives who had passed away, and it became really meaningful. The messages I have received really are very heartfelt,” she said.
The memory bears have proven to be a much bigger undertaking than the caps for kids at Nemours. Whereas the hats can take five minutes to sew, a bear takes about five hours. She also takes time to communicate with family members, collect memorable items, and design a bear that will make the best use of everything at her disposal.
Sweaters, blankets, jewelry — personal items that evoke memories
Families provide lots of information about hobbies, interests, personality traits and athletic achievements – anything to help Julee create the best image of a memorable bear. And relatives will often shower Schwieger in memorabilia, giving her ties, blouses, sweaters, robes, blankets, sports jerseys, pins, emblems, varsity letters and other trinkets.
Swatches and other colorful accents are like pieces of a puzzle that have to fit together, look appropriate, and tell the story. Some have elaborate collars, sweaters sized to fit the little bear or cute caps.
The bears often resemble a college booster, a ballet dancer, or someone who loved to read or cook.
“I learn from the families which items really mean a lot to them, and I always try to use a place those items prominently,” said Julee. “I literally lay out all of the fabrics and I try to figure out what I could show on the bear’s stomach as something that’s meaningful – maybe an emblem, or a favorite color. And as I am making them, I do create a little bear in their honor, and I try to bring their memory to life.”
She irons on an interfacing fabric behind all of the material she uses because the fabrics are all very different. She might have to hand sew embellishments like patches, buttons and jewelry.
As the bear starts to take shape, sometimes Schwieger gets a little carried away with her latest creation. “It almost becomes a person. I start talking to it. It’s kind of bizarre. Sometimes I will sit down to do my hand-sewing in the family room, and as I am finishing up a bear, I will introduce him or her by name to my husband.”
Julee Cares Memory Bears also available for purchase
Once Julee started sharing pictures of the adorable bears on Facebook, of course, interest started coming from folks outside of the hospice community. So now Julee also sells memory bears to people simply looking for a unique gift for a loved one. Clients can request an 18-inch bear for $60 or a 24-inch bear for $75.
One local mom who purchased a Julee Cares Memory Bear for her son says she contacted Julee after learning about her craft from a North Wilmington Moms group. “My son Zach and Poppy (grandpa) were inseparable. In December Poppy passed away, leaving a huge hole in our hearts. I reached out to Julee to make a bear out of Poppy’s shirts and asked Zach to pick out shirts for a surprise. Then I sent them to Julee to work her magic. After Julee delivered it, Zach hugged the bear so tight, as if he were hugging Poppy. And he does homework, reads, and has snuggled with it ever since he got it.”
Julee sees lots of new applications for her talent and believes Julee Cares could someday encompass more than the surgical caps and memory bears. “I’m trying to do other things, inclusive of things that a seamstress could do that are a little unique rather than just off of the rack – things that are meaningful.”
She’s already looking to connect with other hospitals and help people treasure weddings, capture childhood memories, or pay homage to an alma mater.