HARRISON – When Keri Withers was seven months pregnant and living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, she encountered a woman named Rayola Wright. That woman, who was the mother of six children, served as a surrogate mom for Withers, as her own mother was hundreds of miles away.
As Withers put it, Wright took her under her wing, taught her how to sew onsies out of old T-shirts, how to care for an ill child, and how to can homegrown vegetables. Withers described Rayola Wright’s life of service to others, along with her love and devotion to others, had served as the inspiration for Withers’ organization – also named “Rayola” – and that the organization strives to uphold like-minded values of service.
The Rayola organization’s mission is to “serve the children and youth who suffer the consequences of other people’s actions.” In so doing, the organization hopes to “provide comfort, hope and peace in the lives of those who need it most.”
In mid-July, Withers visited the Clare County Crazy Quilters during their regular Monday morning meeting time at First Congregational Church on Spruce Street in Harrison. The purpose of that visit was to share with like-minded quilters an opportunity to quilt not just for personal satisfaction, but rather to provide a comforting quilt to a child at a critical time in their life.
Withers went into great detail as to how her organization began, has grown and evolved. That included, above all, her deep affection and appreciation for Rayola Wright, who she said always had time for everyone. Withers got a bit choked up when she described Wright as “the best person … when I grow up, I want to be Rayola.” Wright passed away 20 years ago, when her youngest child was 12. Two phrases that inspire Withers are “See a need, fill a need,” and “I can do hard things.” Withers did see a need experienced by children when they’re taken out of their homes and placed into foster care; particularly their often being unable to take with them any of their own familiar possessions. She also realized that to fill that need “takes more than just me.”
Four years ago, when Withers formulated her plan to provide personal and comforting items for those children, she knew she wanted to name her organization after her inspiring friend. Wright’s children, with whom she remains close, assured that they were pleased by what Withers would be doing for children in the name of their mother.
Thus, in September 2020 Withers met with some friends, and in December 2020 they produced quilts for 80 children, and placed them in care packs that also included a homemade crocheted ornament, Christmas stocking, and a pillowcase.
Current care packages contain age-appropriate toiletries, the quilt and much more, including a stuffed animal for those over age 2. To-date, there have been 830 recipients in 15 counties.
The process for connecting a child with a care package is relatively uncomplicated. Rayola receives non-identifying information to include: first name, boy or girl, and sometimes ethnic background can be beneficial, i.e., for special hair products. Then that child’s care pack is delivered to their caseworker, who takes it from there.
Withers noted her organization also provides items for preschool and GSRR [Great Start Reading Readiness] programs, where children may not have everything they need to feel comfortable in their education. In that area, Withers has provided 400 pocket pillow blankets this year, items that are easy to launder should a child have an accident.
Rayola is a 100% volunteer organization that relies on fundraising, donations and grant writing. Until recently, all this work was being done out of Withers’ home, but a now building has been gifted to the organizaiton. The building is situated on M-30 in Ogemaw County and offers room for 40 sewers at a time, as well as space for needed racking and shelves with bins of supplies.
Now, with the expense of a dedicated building having been added, it became obvious that funding this worthy cause could no longer be borne solely on the shoulders of Withers and her husband. That is when fundraising began in earnest. Withers, herself, puts in 50-60 hours a week on Rayola.
“I’m passionate about what I do,” she said. “I don’t begrudge [the time required for] what I do.”
There were lots of questions from Crazy Quilters. They learned that Rayola will take donated quilt tops to quilt/finish, as well as completed quilts. It also will ensure requests that a quilt top stay in Clare County would be honored, although there was no control over where the foster child receiving it would be placed.
Withers described her long-arm quilting machine as having run nonstop since 2020, and that binding days yield 30-40 quilts. Also noted was the fact only high-quality batting and backing are used. She pointed out that the children served range from age infant to 18/19 years, when they age out of the system; therefore, all sizes of quilt tops are needed. Withers reiterated that donations can include brand new toiletries, books, full-size toothpaste.
She also related a success story about a mother who, after two years, got her kids back. The mom said her 4-year-old was adamant that nobody gets to use the blanket but him.
“These children deserve the best of the best,” Withers said. “The least we can do is rally around them. They appreciate and enjoy it.”
At the end of the presentation, all the Crazy Quilters in attendance gathered up the many lap quilt tops they had been working on with the intent of donation, and held them up proudly for a group photo with Withers.
Withers said monetary donations can be received via mail or Venmo. Persons interested in supporting the Rayola effort can reach out via email to email@example.com; write to P.O. Box 594, West Branch, MI 48661; or visit https://rayolawb.com/rayola.
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