When Judy Olson was born on December 14, 1921, on a farm near Underwood, Minnesota, Warren G. Harding was president of the United States, Prohibition was in effect, the Great Depression was about eight years in the future, and no home had a television. Bread cost about 10 cents a loaf, gas was 22 cents a gallon, and the average house went for about $8,000.
But even though much has obviously changed in our world since then, one thing for Judy remains the same: a sense of mission and service instilled in her at a young age.
At 94, Judy spends her days making dresses for orphan girls—averaging two to three dresses a day—and donates most of them to International Children’s Care (ICC), a Seventh-day Adventist ministry headquartered in Vancouver, Washington.* ICC establishes group orphan homes, each comprising about 10 to 12 children in various countries worldwide.
Using a Singer Featherweight sewing machine built in 1930—which she has owned since 1951—Judy has made and donated to ICC thousands of dresses in various girls’ sizes as well as some shirts for boys.
“It all started with a friend in British Columbia who sewed for International Children’s Care,” Judy says. “She’s the one who got me started, and that was more than 20 years ago.”
ICC continues to be grateful for Judy’s kindness and hard work. Sharon Fleck, who has served as ICC’s children’s services director for about the past 15 years, says Judy’s handmade dresses are greatly appreciated because they’re made of cotton, which works well in the hot and humid climates to which they’re sent.
“They go to our children’s villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, and Guatemala,” Fleck says. “She does a beautiful job with the dresses, and we really appreciate her obvious love for the kids and her dedication.
“It’s pretty incredible that somebody is still doing something like this for others at her age,” she adds. “It takes a special person to do this.”
Judy now resides in Loveland, Colorado, and attends the Campion Adventist Church, where she’s been a member for 69 years. Best friend and fellow church member Naomi Sigler frequently comes to Judy’s home and helps cut the dress material for her, but Judy does the sewing.
“I can’t cut enough for her,” Naomi says. “I can’t keep up with her.”
The only trouble Judy has sometimes is threading the needle, “especially if it is on black material,” she says.
So who pays for the material for all these dresses? Even though church members donate some of the material, most of the funds come directly from Judy’s own pocket.
“I’m always happy to receive donations, though,” she notes.
Nearby Campion Adventist Academy also benefits from Judy’s dressmaking skills. Campion students take along dozens of Judy’s dresses on their annual mission trip to Belize to give to girls living in orphanages there. This past year the students took 92 dresses and some shirts. Campion senior, Gabrielle Williams, recalls the girls’ reaction to the gift of the dresses:
“[The girls] were anywhere from 5 to 11 years old, and they’d light up because they were excited to receive something new that was especially made for them,” Gabrielle says. “Even though they were young, they understood that the dress was a labor of love. The joy was contagious.”
Campion Academy holds a special place in Judy’s heart because she used to be girls’ dean for the school and also worked in the cafeteria.
Judy’s love of sewing began when she was only 12.
“I just decided to make myself a dress, and that started it,” she says. Eighty-two years later she’s still sewing dresses. Why does she do it?
“Because I like being active,” she says. “It bores me to sit and do nothing.”
Judy does more to keep herself busy than make dresses. At Thanksgiving she helps make dinner rolls for food baskets that church members and Pathfinders deliver to the community. This past Thanksgiving she and Naomi made more than 300 dinner rolls. The duo also bakes cookies at Christmastime for Judy’s neighbors, friends, and shut-ins.
“That’s a bunch of cookies,” Naomi says.
Judy became an Adventist Christian through working for a family in their greenhouse.
“The mother of the lady of the house was an Adventist,” she explains. “She would come and visit, and that’s how it all started.”
Judy was baptized at age 20. In 1948 she married Orley, a builder of houses as well as Adventist churches and schools. They were together for 61 years, until Orley died in 2009. Orley had a son from a previous marriage, who is now a sculptor. The couple also adopted two girls in 1956; one is a nurse, and the other a physical therapist.
Judy says she “grew up always wanting to do things for somebody else. They were very hard times back then; it was during the Depression.”
She adds: “One is certainly a lot happier doing something for others than just sitting around doing nothing.”
Sounds like good advice to me.
Sandra Blackmer is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.