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Steve Flairty’s Everyday Heroes: Nina Lee stitches threads of love in the fabric of lives

Nina Lee has a sweet sense of the power that clothing sewed personally for loved ones can bring.

She remembers talking with her children who sat beside her as she craftily hand made their garments on “Old Girl,” a mid-1930s Kenmore second-hand machine her husband bought for her early in their marriage.

“My favorite thing to tell them was how ‘each stitch carries my love for you in it,’ and how comforting that became to them,” said Nina.  

“Cara (the second child) had the hardest time getting used to school, and she would sniff the hem of her dress for the stitches of love to help her get through the day.”

In her 80s, Nina Lou Holt Lee is a dynamic person of compassion. She primarily carries her angelic vessel of love to others through the local Bloomfield chapter of Threads of Love she founded. The national organization promotes a mission that “provides clothing, blankets and other handmade articles for tiny premature and sick infants.”

Nina is also a faithful volunteer receptionist at the Flaget Memorial Hospital in Bardstown, with over 1,500 hours of service. Working in the hospital auxiliary there, she is a driving force in an ongoing scholarship fund created for those in the Nelson County high schools who are interested in the medical field. She is active in her church and she also shares her religious faith by writing uplifting articles published in The Record, a periodical of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Her life is unselfish, productive and always uplifting.

Nina became active in Threads of Love in 2002, shortly after her granddaughter gave birth prematurely to identical twins, Ally and Macy. Ally died within four days. Macy spent almost a year at the Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville with severe breathing difficulties. The family ordeal touched Nina deeply, and she reacted by developing a passion to be a positive force for others in similar situations. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to lose a baby,” she said.

So with her strong desire to be supportive, Lee searched for a viable outlet. “I looked on the internet for a serving ministry for premature babies,” she explained. “I knew it was going to be my new element of sewing – for preemie babies.”

“The goal of Threads of Love is not to dress babies,” Lee noted, “but to use these clothes as a tool for reaching parents and families at a time in their lives when they need to be reassured that God is there and that He is always faithful.”

She embraced Threads of Love as an ideal way to do her work of compassion, and she started by sending clothing units to Kosair, where Macy received treatment. Nina, commuting from Bloomfield, was in the midst of a 27-year career working as secretary to the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Louisville, so nearby Kosair Hospital was a convenient destination for her minute-sized clothing “units” she sewed with tenderness and skill.

It proved gratifying, both for Nina and the parents of the children. With their children in incubators with their fragile lives in balance, parents appreciated the extra care Nina spent to sew clothing that fit the tiny bodies, even with the life-sustaining support tubes getting in the way. “You have to have a little garment that is very adaptable, that doesn’t interfere with the tubes,” she said. “I love being able to do that to help.”

For those who have suffered with the death of a child at birth, the clothing units are so important. To hold their child dressed in a beautiful garment in a matching blanket “lets them know somebody cared about their loss,” Nina said.

Nina embraces a simple mantra–“give yourself away.” She proudly sang those words in an anthem she and her choir at the Bloomfield Baptist Church shared recently. Her gracious attitude shines as she serves at the church, according to Leland Parks, an associate pastor there: “She is one of those ‘quiet servants’ who is always seeking ways to do for others while never expecting any kind of recognition,” he said.

True to the idea of using her best talents to serve, she both makes and oversees the purchase of banners used in the church’s worship center for seasonal emphasis.

Today, in “retirement,” Nina continues to sew her clothing units – now for the benefit of the babies and parents at University of Kentucky Birthing Center and Central Baptist Hospital in Lexington.

Sandy Mojesky, a registered nurse at the Birthing Center, is profuse in her praise of Nina: “There are not many people who want to do this. She does exquisite work and manages to get us all different sizes to use,” noted Mojesky. “I’ve been doing this work for 25 years and Nina is the best we’ve ever had. She’s a God-send.”

Debbie Mueller, perinatal bereavement coordinator at Central Baptist Hospital, receives the clothing units Nina sends through the Threads of Love program and is quite an admirer.

“For me, personally, Nina is like a ray of sunshine,” said Mueller. “Whenever I receive a package from Nina there is a wonderful, uplifting note that just makes my day. If there is a special request, she will go out of her way to accommodate in any way possible. And for all that she does, she is continually asking what else she can do. It is just unbelievable that one person can have so much energy and so much drive to help so many people that she does not know and will most likely never have an opportunity to meet. ”

Nina is an important cog in the welcoming culture of Flaget Memorial Hospital, which has won awards in that regard.

Yvonne Jones, a longtime admirer of Lee at the hospital, praised her voluntary work at the information desk: “Nina is wonderful with the patients and visitors. Whenever I have a new volunteer that needs training, I always go to Nina because I know they will be trained right.”

One of the most vivid examples of Nina Lee’s character deals with a neighbor who came to her in distress. The neighbor, after surgery, wore a colostomy pouch that caused a noticeable bulge on one side of her abdomen.

“The time came for a family wedding,” said Nina, “and the neighbor felt so uncomfortable wearing the dress because it looked so unbalanced with the bulge. I told her ‘we’ll just fix that.’” Her genius and experience as a seamstress soon brought a smile to the lady–and she attended the wedding, as planned and without complications. “I love doing that…working with adaptive clothing and doing whatever it takes to help somebody. All of those kinds of things have to do with the dignity of the person.”

In recent years, Nina has worked her thread magic for the good of many while using her high-quality Bernina sewing machine. Her original, Old Girl, was serving little purpose at Lee’s home, so she decided to give it new wings. “In July of 2008, I made the hard decision to let the Old Girl go for someone else to use,” she explained. “I sold it through St. Vincent de Paul to a gentleman who called them the same day I did. His grandson had recently come to live with him and had a gift for sewing. I was so happy that the Old Girl’s life would continue, and that she went into good hands!”

Nina Lee’s life, in some ways, is like a metaphor demonstrated by the continued usefulness of her first sewing machine – tried and true, and still stitching threads of love into the fabric of others’ lives.

To read more of Steve Flairty’s Everyday Heroes stories, click here.

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, due to be released in early 2013. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores. Or contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

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