A common thread

Charlotte Whaley passes life skills on to Routt County 4-H members

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— When Michelle Crawford, 13, accidentally cut a hole in the back of the lining of her hand-sewn dress, she was frantic. The Routt County 4-H Exhibit Day was coming up quickly, and Crawford wanted her clothing entry to be the best it could be.

But with the help of Charlotte Whaley, who has been a 4-H leader for the Routt County Handy Lads and Lassies group for the past 20 years, Crawford was able to patch the hole on her light-blue satin, black-overlay dress and earned a reserve championship.

"Normally we would have redone it, but we put a patch on it and ironed it on. You can't really see it," Crawford said. "I always get really frantic and (Whaley) is always real calm, and is like, we can fix it like this."

Learning how to sew has been fun and helpful, Crawford said. Now she can put buttons back on her father's shirts, and just recently she sewed the seat in his truck. Oftentimes, it's Whaley who makes it even more fun, she said.

"She helps with everything," Crawford said about Whaley. "I always call her and ask her questions."

This year is the second that Crawford has been sewing with 4-H under the guidance of Whaley. For the two weeks before exhibit day, which was Aug. 2, Crawford said she spent three or four hours every day at Whaley's home, working on her project.

It's typical for Charlotte Whaley to have several 4-H club members at her house, said her son Jay Whaley, who also is the 4-H agent for Routt County.

"You go to her house in the summer, and just about every time during the day there's a 4-H kid doing something there," he said.

For Charlotte Whaley, leading the 4-H group and teaching children how to sew is something she enjoys so much that she can never turn down a new student, regardless of how many children she's already helping.

"It's very gratifying," she said. "Sometimes you get frustrated with some of them, but then they turn around and give you a big hug."

Whaley began volunteering for 4-H in 1983, when Jay was 8 years old. Even after her third and youngest son was too old for the group, she continued leading it. It was the beginning of a longtime commitment to 4-H, an organization she never belonged to as a youngster.

"I knew nothing about it," she said. "As a kid I wanted to join, but I missed the deadline and that was it."

She did, however, know about sewing, and through leading the 4-H group she has taught dozens of club members how to make their own clothes.

Having three boys didn't stop her from teaching them how to make an outfit or sew on a button. All three had to take at least one year of sewing.

"Boys don't know. If they would only realize that they can sew," Whaley said. "They think it's feminine. And if they'd really think about it, a lot of the good tailors are men."

When men and women don't learn how to sew, she said, they have to resort to other techniques to repair their clothes. What other methods?

"Duct tape, I guess," she said. "I've seen some of that, duct tape or Scotch tape."

Besides teaching 4-H members how to sew, Whaley teaches them about being patient and caring, said Meg Hayne, 18, who joined the group when she was 9.

Hayne said she has clear memories of the first outfit she made with Whaley -- shorts and a tank top.

"It was amazing because I'd only ever made pillows and stuff before," Hayne said. "But actually to be able to wear something I made was such a feeling of accomplishment."

Working with Whaley, Hayne said, also taught her about being involved in the lives of others.

"She's just such a compassionate person," Hayne said. "I don't think that she's ever met somebody that she doesn't care about."

Whaley cares about club members so much that they seem to become part of her family. This year, six members graduated high school. She has a little wire tree in her home in Phippsburg that holds each of their photos. And when she talks about them moving on, she gets teary-eyed.

"I've had a lot of kids come through, and you get attached to them," she said.

Whaley's immediate family already is involved in 4-H. Her husband, Lynn Whaley, has helped with the group for about 15 years, teaching children skills such as the metal working and welding art that he does on his own. Lynn Whaley's mother was a 4-H member, and the couple's son, Jay, works with 4-H members every day as the county's agent.

That makes Jay's daughter, Jaelyn, a fourth-generation Routt County 4-H participant.

Even though her own sons finished the program more than seven years ago, Charlotte Whaley said she plans on leading the group as long as she can.

"I get to thinking, 'Oh, I should quit this,' but then I enjoy the kids, and I enjoy the organization," she said.

When Whaley is ready to retire, it sounds as if Jaelyn will be ready to take over.

"Yep -- just because it's fun," Jaelyn said, when asked if she would continue with the club. "I learned from her," she continued, talking about her grandmother.

"She makes sewing fun -- just what she does, just how she teaches you."

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