Burlington’s citizen of the year will tell you “good intentions stink”. We will never run out of opportunities to help the poor.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON –  May 27, 2012    She is a pure evangelical.  She puts her heart and soul into everything she does and trusts in her Lord that she is doing his will.  She wakes up with that thought and closes her eyes at night with the same thought.  She takes her energy and her drive and operates the all voluntary Sew on Fire Ministry.  And it was for this that Wendy Hagar was chosen as the 2011 Citizen of the Year in Burlington.

The play on words in the name of her Ministry “Sew on Fire” is another part of the approach to life the evangelical community takes.  For that community they do feel “so” on fire with the belief that they have been called to do God’s work here on earth.  Wendy Hagar chose to ‘sew’ clothing kits for young Mother’s and changed the ‘so’ to “sew” which grew to the point where the warehouse grew from every room in her house to 1000 square feet, then to 3000 square feet  to the 6,000 square foot location they now have.

Everything that comes in get stored in a box - and every bit of it gets used. Wendy Hagar, Sew on Fire Ministry Founder stands at one of the several working tables in the 6,000 sq foot warehouse.

What Hagar has managed to do is meld different objectives into a single result – finding clothing for people in parts of the world where people do not have the clothing they need; create a place where people can work together to give back to the community and the wider world and also be a place where manufacturers can send the product over-run  they do not need. “By sending it to me – I keep it out of the landfill which is usually the cheapest place for them to send the stuff”.

She does this by inviting corporations to send their staff over for half a day of putting button snaps on pouches that will hold crayons and pencils or working with schools as a location for students who need to do their forty hours of community service.  Wendy Hagar will take anyone from anywhere and put their fingers and hands to work.

Thousands of screwdriver sets were donated - they will get packed up and sent off to people who need tools like this.

Sew on Fire creates products that are new and in the hands of a professional marketer might move quickly to that list of  “absolutely must haves”  that seems to drive the teen world today.

In the Hagar household literally every room became a place to store cloth, buttons, zippers – you name it, that eventually got run through the half a dozen sewing machines that filled the dining room table. “There were occasions when my husband Jeff would come home and have to step gingerly  over and around the boxes and bags of donations that had come in.”  The Hagar household was consumed by the Sew on Fire Ministry.

While church and Sunday school were part of family life when Wendy was a child – the decision to serve full time in a volunteer capacity and take on a really big project is not something that just happened.  There is always a deep level of personal discernment before the decision becomes evident and for Wendy Hagar that included a long period of fasting and prayer and asking for direction.  “What do you want me to do – show me” and then it became evident.

Home church for Wendy Hagar is Glad Tidings on Guelph Line.

It’s the way the faith communities works – you either believe it or you don’t.  Wendy Hagar believes it and lives it.

It all started in a small Saskatchewan town where Wendy was born.  “My  Dad was a mechanic who wanted me to be a nurse – that just wasn’t for me.  I wanted to be a Mother and today I have two grown children.  We were strong parents.  Church was a part of the household I grew up in and it is part of the household I ran.  Our children learned piano and they didn’t date until they were 16.”

The family moved to Ignace, Ontario.   The Hagar family arrived in Burlington in 1994 and by 2000 the Sew on Fire Ministry had been started –” it ran out of the 7 room house we had with two garages.  We never did get to parking cars in the garage.  There was no room for them”.

“There was a time when we didn’t eat a meal at the dining room table and you had to step over and around boxes of stuff that were in the hallway.”

Hagar does it all; works in the warehouse, calls on organizations that can help and brings in the volunteers.

Wendy has an organization that does more than take in production over runs, cloth that can be made into clothing for children – you name it – she will find a use for whatever you have.  Just give her a call.  Hager works with corporations, organizations – clubs, Girl Guide, Brownies – it doesn’t matter the group, Hagar will find a time slot for them and achieve two objectives.  First, showing people how they can “serve ” and at the same time get packages of clothing ready for shipment around the world.

“Students who need a place to perform their 40 hours of community service come to us by the busload and we put them to work – and we teach them what it is to give back to a society that has given them so much.”

Stuffed on shelves in her warehouse are dozen of cardboard cartons with small clear plastic bags that measure about 5 x 7 and have a zipper. ” I paid 60 cents each for these but couldn’t afford that amount for all the over run the manufacturer had – so I convinced him to sell them to me at 5 cents each.  She now has more than 10,000 of the things that will get used to put toiletries in and shipped around the world.

Wendy Hagar would hear people say that “Sew on Fire” was one of Burlington’s best kept secrets.  With just a little bit of  rise in her voice she will, with an imploring look, tell you that “we don’t want to be a secret”.  She adds that “for six years there wasn’t a word about us in the local papers and it was frustrating.”

There was a Burlington company that Hagar had wanted to connect with for the longest time – but she couldn’t seem to get through to the man that made the decisions.  Hagar is persistent if she is anything and she is now on a first name basis with the President of that company.

An insight into the way Wendy Hagar works is how she connected with one Burlington based manufacturer. “I knew they could be a big help but I couldn’t get to the right person – even though I made a lot of calls.  Then one day I made a call and got put through to the President and that was it.  They have become key partners for us.”

Manufacturers have inventory they need to clear out before the next production run can start. If it can't be sold it often gets sent to a landfill site. Hager tries to get to that inventory before then.

Hunter Amenities, a company that got its start in John Hunter’s kitchen grew to become one of the  largest manufacturers of hotel amenities in the world making products for global clients such as the Fairmont, Westin, Club Med, Hyatt and Sheraton and servicing them in over 100 countries. When John Hunter at Hunter Amenities heard her story he  told her she had a partner for life and not to worry any more. Good things happen to good people and in the recent past Hunter has been recognized as being the best manufacturer in Burlington, Ontario (by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce), the best small company in Ontario (by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce) and recently has been selected as one of the “50 Best Managed Companies” in Canada. Praises indeed!

When Burlington was named the second best city in Canada to live in by MoneySense magazine everyone touted that story.  The real story about Burlington is people like Wendy Hagar and companies like Hunter Amenities

There was an opportunity to bring in $150,000 worth of screw driver parts which we did.  We then had to find willing hands to assemble the parts.  They were the kind that had multiple pieces that could be fitted into the handle.  “We took them in and in time we will find a place for them.  Men looking for work will have tools that can get them employment.  Maybe not today – but someone will need those screw drivers and we will ship them out.”

Today it might be Uganda, tomorrow somewhere in the Philippines. ” I never know where the call is going to come from – I just pray that I am able to respond when the call does come.  When the earthquakes destroyed parts of Haiti we knew there were going to be calls and we began looking at what we had and preparing.”

“Back packs for students are something every kid wants and needs, we’ve sent out more than 3,000 of them.”

While Sew on Fire Ministry is about helping people Hagar is not shy about her statistics.  In a Newsletter she sets out what was done in one year: 16,500 gift bags to 38 countries; partnered with 64 churches/ministries to send 112 shipments; 3,000 backpacks, 1750 layettes; 40 teachers kits, 1,000 shoes/boots; 336 refugee baskets and 12,000 other items like blankets and bikes and Bibles and sewing and knitting machines.  All done by the between 600 to 900 volunteer hours put in at the warehouse each month.  The operation is very thin on the administrative side – there is no payroll department – everything is done by volunteers – no one, not even Wendy Hagar gets as much as a dime.

When one listens and gets a sense of the size of the Sew in Fire operation you kind of realize that the Hagar family is writing cheques to pay some of the bills.  So are a lot of other people who send in donations and somehow the doors stay open.  Hagar doesn’t worry too much about getting the bills paid – her view is that the Lord will provide – her job is to get what she brings in out to the people who need it.

The sewing table where parts ore stitched together and packed for shipping somewhere in the world. If you know how to service and fix these machines -- give Wendy Hagar a call.

Hagar is constantly on the prowl for new suppliers.  She wants to talk to those companies that have a production over run and need to clear out inventory so they can begin the next production run.  “I’ve got space”  she will tell you.

When the house could no longer hold everything Hager had to find a place where there was some room.  Jack Hawkins came to her rescue, which some would say was a nice piece of luck, at which Hagar will look at you over the top of her glasses and say firmly: “God`s will.”  You can`t argue with her on that point.

“Jack Hawkins learned of us and offered us 1,000 square feet of space on Herring Court.  We were there for three and a half years but Jack’s company decided to move to Brantford.  We were offered space in the new location but knew that the travel wasn’t for us.  We were given plenty of notice – more than a year and that was when we took the leap and rented space.”

“We looked at 60 different places.  Parking was critical for us.  School buses that bring students in for volunteer hours needed a place to park; the volunteers needed a place to park as well.  We started with 1,000 square feet and then needed 3,000 square feet and now we are in a 6,000 square foot space and when you look around there isn’t any space that isn’t being used.   Layettes for new babies are always in demand.”

“When we moved into the first space we were renting I felt like a teenager moving out of the family home; I was excited and at the same time just a little apprehensive – for me it was another walk of faith.”

While Hagar is the energy behind Sew on Fire she is supported by her husband Jeff and her best friend Evelyn Molyneaux.  They are her closest friends and sounding board.  Her children have grown up, completed their educations married and moved on to lives of their own.  Sarah Jane lives in Vancouver with her husband and her son Matthew lives in Dorchester, Ontario with his wife.  Both children are graduates of Nelson High School.  They, along with their friends,  spent many hours in whichever room in the house had work that had to be done.

Sew on Fire is a non-profit organization with Registered Charity status.  If there was one observation about the company it is that there is an opportunity to improve the governance and add more talent to the top level.  Hagar is often there as almost a one man band running everything with the help of two very close friends.  There doesn’t appear to be a succession plan and to lose all that the organization does, when Wendy Hagar isn’t able to put in the amount of time she does, would be a terrible shame.

On the “what I need today” list is someone who can volunteer to take care of the sewing machines.   “There are ten in regular use now and additional machines that come in and need a fix up. They need maintenance and repair and we don’t have anyone who can do that for us right now.”

Sew on Fire is a working operation. It may look a little cluttered - they don't worry too much about appearances - it is the serving that matters to them.

“Oh, and if you happen to have a couple of 5×5 waste bins, those big steel things you put out by the freight door – give us a call – we need two of those.  The ones we had were apparently needed more by someone else and they disappeared one night.”

Hagar’s message is always the same, “the need is great and we will never run out of opportunities to help the poor.  Sew on Fire  is successful because people invest their time, treasure and talents;  we are 100% volunteer, our gifts are freely given, our volunteers are priceless, and partners are vital”.

More about the organization at www.sewonfire.com

If you want to help – you can reach Wendy Hagar at whagar@cogeco.ca

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