Tuesday, December 25, 2007
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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.
On this celebrated day, 100 little girls are clutching dolls decked out in the "God-given" talent of Nancy Burgess.
Burgess is a seamstress. But to say she sews is an understatement.
And for four years, disadvantaged girls across the Roanoke Valley have awakened on Christmas morning to find a doll wearing one of Burgess' stunning and intricate creations.
Beautiful satin and lace wedding gowns. Sequined evening dresses. Casual khaki skirts, sassy denim pants and whimsical cotton tops. Fake-fur coats with hoods.
Each made with less than one-third of a yard of leftover fabric or from discarded clothes. No patterns. Just patience and a realization that not everyone is as blessed as she.
"I know some people out there don't have a lot," the Roanoke resident said. "I'm just doing what I hope somebody would do for me."
Burgess, 74, is one of a small army of Santa's helpers who volunteer each year to make clothes for dolls distributed through the Salvation Army's Christmas Toy Shop.
This year, about 20 seamstresses from across the valley dressed 1,000 dolls. A few volunteers used store-bought clothes. The agency distributed 10,000 toys, including the dolls, so that area children would have something under the tree today.
"They tell me kids don't want to play with dolls, because we're in this electronic age," said Salvation Army Capt. Richard White. "Girls still like to play with baby dolls. Obviously, to see the individuality of the dolls is incredible."
Last week, the 18-inch dolls were assembled at the agency's toy shop near Tanglewood Mall. They were carefully stacked on a table, all impeccably dressed and waiting for a home.
The detail on the outfits was elaborate.
Josh Meltzer | The Roanoke Times
Nancy Burgess sewed outfits this year for more than 100 dolls. See a closeup
Josh Meltzer | The Roanoke Times
Debbie Scott loads up her van with boxes of dolls that were dressed by fellow Colonial Avenue Baptist Church member Nancy Burgess.
I can't sew, but my mother studied dressmaking in college. So she taught me how to recognize quality work.
The pleats on a mauve-colored skirt lay with the uniformity of accordion bellows. The beading on a white satin wedding dress was delicate. A handmade dress was crocheted from white yarn and trimmed in green and orange.
The outfits came from the creative minds, big hearts and nimble hands of people such as Burgess.
"I get to create and do my own thing," chuckled Burgess, a friendly woman who laughs easily.
Burgess' doll clothes are miniature versions of everything a fashion-conscious woman would wear. Many are replicas of clothes she has made for granddaughter Christina or great-granddaughter Jaida.
With the leftover cloth, Burgess fashions a doll outfit.
"I use every little scrap."
What makes Burgess' efforts even more compelling are the two bad discs in her back that keep her in constant pain. She also has arthritis in both knees.
But that's not all. She's a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and you now what a busy family life that means.
Yet, she makes time to teach the children's Sunday school class at Colonial Avenue Baptist Church. She makes dinner for her next-door neighbor every evening since he lost his wife nearly three years ago, and she visits her 105-year-old mother in a nursing home several hours every day.
She also serves as a church deacon.
"She is quiet and unassuming but has a heart for people," the Rev. Jeff Scott, Burgess' pastor, wrote in an e-mail.
For as long as she can remember, Burgess has stitched pieces of cloth together.
"I can't tell you for sure, but I may have come here with a needle in my hand," she said, laughing as she sat at a quilting frame set up in the living room of brick ranch home in Southwest Roanoke.
She shares the home -- which also houses her five sewing machines -- with her husband, Dalton, a retired Norfolk Southern clerk.
Burgess sold her first design at 8. She made a tiered skirt for herself out of animal-feed sacks. The woman next door was so impressed she asked the young girl to make her one.
The neighbor paid 50 cents.
Burgess married when she was 19 in 1952. She became a nurse, but she didn't stop sewing.
Her talent gained attention after she made an outfit for a co-worker. The skirt-and-blazer ensemble caught so many eyes that more and more people called Burgess for custom-made garments and alterations.
She once spent eight hours hand-sewing 5,000 beads onto a wedding gown.
By 1970, Burgess sewed for 250 people. That's about the time health issues forced her to give up her nursing job.
She eventually scaled back and now sews for only 40 or so people. Burgess also cross stitches, quilts and crochets.
But sewing is her gift.
"It's a God-given talent," she said. "I just look at a piece of fabric and think about what it can turn it into."
Four years ago, Colonial church member and fellow seamstress Natalie McMahon asked Burgess if she would join her in dressing some Salvation Army dolls for needy children.
The idea was a natural for Burgess. She participates in a program that solicits seamstresses to make school clothes for impoverished children in Appalachia.
The first year, Burgess dressed 17 dolls.
"I had so much fun!" she said with schoolgirl excitement. The second year she dressed 60 dolls. She dressed 100 last year and again this year. She said she may ask for more next year.
Priscilla Carter, a Salvation Army employee, makes sure the dolls get delivered to the volunteers. She believes Burgess holds the record for dressing the most dolls in one year. When the dolls arrive in July, Burgess starts sewing. By October, she's done.
Today, after her family has opened its bounty of presents, and gift wrap and bows litter the floor, Burgess will think about her dolls.
As she has for the past three Christmases, she will pray that the girls get as much pleasure playing with them as she did dressing them.
Burgess has never seen one of her dolls after it left her house. But reward is not why she participates in the program. At least not now.
Recently, she wrote in the church newsletter: "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would have not a single bit of talent left and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.' "
Merry Christmas, Nancy Burgess, and to all the lives you touch.
Shanna Flowers' column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.