When clients of the Yolo County Children’s Alliance arrived for the Yolo County Food Bank’s weekly food distribution in West Sacramento one recent morning, they discovered they were in for a special treat:
In addition to the fresh produce they’d be receiving, each client also would get to pick out a set of beautiful cloth napkins — complete with napkin rings — to take home to their families.
The hard part: choosing from dozens of colors and patterns, from animal prints to florals, holiday to simple white, each paired with a napkin ring in a complementary color and each beautifully cut and stitched.
There to help clients select and bag up their napkins was Holmes Junior High School student Allegra Starr.
As people approached her table, arms laden with bags of food, Allegra would ask each person how many family members they had, then offer them a selection of styles to choose from. Some knew instantly which napkins they wanted; others perused for a bit, taking their time to find the perfect color and style.
Once they’d chosen their napkins, Allegra handed them a sheet of paper, explaining why cloth napkins are better for the environment than disposable paper ones, how to find more information and even how to make their own napkins.
Recipients were so grateful.
“Bless your heart,” said one woman.
“It’s such a good way to reduce paper and help families save money,” said Amanda McCarthy, director of programs for the Food Bank. “Allegra’s worked so hard and is doing so much good and we’re so excited to have her helping us.”
McCarthy especially appreciated that clients got to select their own napkins.
“It’s so cool that they have the choice,” she said. “So many of these people don’t have a lot of choices.”
Doing something creative, helping the environment and helping people: those were Allegra’s goals when she set about earning her Girl Scout Silver award.
A Girl Scout since the first grade — mom Lynn Starr leads Troop 1469 — Allegra began thinking about how to earn her Silver Award last year. She’d received a sewing machine for Christmas and felt inspired to do something creative, but also something sustainable for the environment.
It occurred to her that making cloth napkins could be very environmentally friendly, especially after a little research showed her the true cost of paper napkins.
“Napkin waste alone produces over 4 billion pounds of trash in U.S. landfills each year,” Allegra said. “That’s huge. You really can make an impact by switching to cloth napkins.”
Plus, she noted, they’re a lot nicer-looking than the paper variety.
“But I had no idea how to distribute them if I made them,” she said.
Enter a parent from the troop who suggested the Food Bank.
“I emailed them and they were very enthusiastic,” Allegra said.
The Food Bank paired her up with the Yolo Children’s Alliance, which operates a food distribution every Friday at a West Sacramento elementary school. Anywhere from 150 to 180 people usually show up.
Next, Allegra had to set about finding the raw materials. She put out the word to other Girl Scout troops, the Village Homes community and businesses in town. In no time, she was receiving bags of fabric from donors — many of them quilters who provided a wide variety of colors and patterns, much of it even neatly cut in squares.
From the bags and tubs of donated material, she ended up with enough fabric to sew 470 napkins.
The Davis Girl Scouts Service Unit provided her with a $100 grant to purchase additional materials, which came in handy since her sewing machine wasn’t going to be able to edge the napkins the way she wanted — she needed a serger for that, something she was able to purchase second-hand and plans to re-sell.
She started sewing in June, “and when I sat down to serge, I usually did 20 or 30 napkins,” Allegra said.
Her mom and grandmother, Nancy Acker, helped by cutting fabric and brother Griffin, 9, helped with gluing edges.
She was sewing up until the night before the giveaway in West Sacramento last month.
For the napkin rings, Allegra came up with a plan that incorporated recycling as well: she collected cardboard tubes from wrapping paper and paper towel rolls, which she then cut into circles. Davis Ace donated an array of duct tape in various colors and styles, which Allegra then wrapped around the cardboard to fashion into stylish napkin rings. The silver, appropriately enough, made for one of the prettiest napkin rings of all.
The napkins were such a hit that children’s alliance clients were more than willing to patiently wait in line for a chance to choose some.
“I’m really happy with how it turned out,” Allegra said afterward. “I made my project about helping people, as well as helping the environment, and I think I have.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy