CLEVELAND — Eileen Beegle has never met any of the thousands of people she has helped to keep warm during Cleveland's frigid winters.
But many of the homeless people who have received the sleeping bags that she and a group of volunteers have made have plenty of appreciation for her.
On most Wednesday mornings throughout the year, Beegle, 73, of University Heights, works with about a dozen volunteers of all faiths who come to her custom quilt business. Together, they create the sleeping bags that are later distributed to the homeless and poor.
Beegle has operated the Gesu Sleeping Bag Ministry for 16 years. The group makes between six and eight sleeping bags each week. The professional seamstress was nominated to be a Cleveland Plain Dealer community hero by Annie D'Alessandro, a business colleague and friend.
So far, Beegle's effort has created about 3,200 sleeping bags made of donated upholstery fabrics and sheets and tied together with old neckties. Groups like the West Side Catholic Center and the Labre Homeless Ministry, a group of student volunteers from St. Ignatius High School, distribute the bags throughout the city.
Beegle said she got the idea to create the ministry in 1996 after reading an article in Guideposts magazine about a woman who began a similar program.
“I thought it was something I can do because I make my living sewing,” Beegle said. “I sent for instructions and asked for advice on how I could begin a program here.”
Beegle enlisted the help of her friend Pat Schoeffler, and the two began to ask people at Gesu Catholic Church, where both are parishioners, to donate unused upholstery fabrics, bed sheets, batting materials and neckties so they could assemble the bags. “A large percentage of the homeless are out there through no fault of their own,” Beegle said. “Some of them have lost jobs because of the economy, and some women have had abusive spouses.”
Beegle said the sleeping bags are also given to people who might have shelter but go without utilities like heat and electricity because of hard economic times.
Schoeffler said Beegle is a tireless worker.
“I think the world of (Eileen), and many of the women who volunteer feel the same way,” Schoeffler said. “She is very giving and driven.”
People who have received the sleeping bags said they are grateful to Beegle and the groups that help individuals in need.
David Nobleton, a 72-year-old Army veteran, said he once used the sleeping bags at a time in his life when he needed help.
“They help keep people warm in the winter who don't have normal facilities,” Nobleton said. “It's a survival tool. . . . I appreciate the people who put them together.”
Terrie Garr, the volunteer services coordinator at the West Side Catholic Center, said contributions to the center are a year-round effort.
“Eileen has been a great advocate for people in need,” Garr said. “Because of her empathy, passion and caring, she is able to help the less fortunate.”