Human Interest

Inmates find purpose sewing clothes for tiny babies

SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) -- Nine inmates at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility have a new purpose in life thanks to a program where they made clothes for babies. 

When the program started more than a year ago, many of the inmates had little sewing experience and little hope for a bright future with some serving long sentences. 

That changed when the Salem Hospital contacted the prison for help make clothes for premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

NICU nurse manager Andrea Bell said store-bought newborn clothes weren't cutting it for these tiny babies.

"They came back in tatters," Bell said. "They didn't have the right snaps in the right places."

She took her concerns to John Fetterley, who was in charge of the hospital's linen services.

"With NICU babies, they have IVs, they have tubes," Fetterley said. "It's not a normal trying to dress your infant at home."

Oregon Corrections Enterprises was already processing laundry for the hospital and Fetterley knew they had programs for inmates, so he approached them with the idea of making preemie clothes.

"My business manager came in with a bag of baby clothes and dumped them on a table and said, 'Hey can you guys reverse engineer these and shrink these?' So that began a 2-year process," Oregon Corrections Enterprises General Manager David Conway said. 

Now, 4 days a week for 8 hour shifts, the women sew tiny clothes for tiny babies. At first they had trouble getting the sizing just right because preemies are so small, but then they had the idea of getting a baby doll, who they named Oceana.

They also put up a photo of a preemie for inspiration.

Traxtle, who has been in prison for 21 years, said she hasn't seen a baby in person in a long time.

"This program has brought us a lot of healing in that we're giving back to the community, we're giving to children," she said. "Many of us have our children at home who've been motherless."

Traxtle said she's a changed person because of her work in the program. 

"One of the things that happens here is our own healing," inmate Tammy Traxtle said.

The women were passionate and when they finally perfected the design, the hospital placed a large order in December. 

"When I saw the final product, I could not have raved enough," Bell said. "I was like, 'these are amazing.'"

Now hospitals all over the country are calling, hoping to order preemie clothes. With all the interest, Coffee Creek is looking to add a few more women to the team and they've been getting a ton of applications. 

"I found my voice again and joy and purpose in life," inmate Shuree Nunez said. "Joy, a strange place to find it in, but yeah."


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