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Helping Delaware's Children, One Handmade Hat (or Scarf) at a Time

Posted by Dustin Oldfather on Friday, November 16th, 2018 at 4:54pm.

Sometime this winter, more than 200 area school children in need will receive handmade hats and scarves, with the express purpose of keeping them warm during the harshness of the region's cold weather months.

The appreciative elementary school students will have no idea where the items came from, only that their teachers and/or administrators cared enough about their well being to ensure that they were indeed kept warm during the often brutal winter weather.

All the while, 91-year-old Claire Orthner will sit quietly in her southern New Jersey home and continue working her knitting needles just as fast as she possibly can. She has no desire for recognition, though her creations take hours of work and are certainly made with huge amounts of love and compassion.

And she has no doubt they're being put to good use in nearby Delaware.

"In life, you can't just do things for yourself all the time. I just do this because it's a nice thing to do," says Orthner, who began quilting and crocheting when she was 11 years old, at the direction of a neighborhood acquaintance everyone simply called "Grandma Gable." "I love that this is creative and gives me something to do with my hands. And to know that I'm doing something for the children is very gratifying to me."

Born in 1927 and knitting now for an incredible eight decades, Orthner proudly admits to spending several hours a day creating items, not only for school children in southern Delaware, but also for many others.

She supports a local hospital in New Jersey with several items, as well as a similar school in the Camden, N.J. area, and loves to make specially designed pillowcases to commemorate the birth of children and grandchildren, particularly those of her friends.

She pays for many of the needed materials herself, though she does receive help from family and friends who have heard, one way or another, of her efforts through the years.

"I love knowing that the things I make are well received and appreciated," she admits. "Some items keep children from getting sick and others can help in different ways."

With eight decades of creations to her name, you'd imagine it's difficult for Orthner to pick one or two items that somehow have special meaning. With thousands of items created over the decades, how can you pick just one, right?

But when Orthner was posed with the question, she didn't have to think about an answer for very long. Her mind wandered right away to an old table cover that now sits safely tucked away in her New Jersey home.

It's covered with many a coffee stain these days, but that's really what makes it so special after all. Well that, and who it actually belonged to for a time.

"I made that table cover many years ago and my father loved to sit at the table with his coffee in the morning. But he had Parkinson's for years and would spill it from time to time," she admits. "But today, those coffee spills remind me of him and I've put it away so it won't be further damaged."

But while that special table cover conjures up memories of her father, Hugo Schmidt, and has great sentimental value for Orthner, today it's the children's hats and scarves that take center stage, both in southern Delaware and in the Camden, N.J. area.

But how exactly did a 91-year-old grandmother in New Jersey become so involved with helping school children on the other side of the Delaware Bay?

Well, that's thanks to Oldfather Group Listing Director Grace Nelson, who just so happens to be Claire's daughter, as well as a fellow artist.

"Grace doesn't always talk about it, but she really does beautiful work with her wall hangings and other creations," Orthner said. "I didn't want to do the same things as her, so the hats and the scarves are what I like to do now."

The items that Orthner creates are donated to Oldfather Group Realtor Chuck Seaman, specifically to the "Tiny Hands" charitable effort that he began several years ago.

The two have never met, though Seaman is incredibly grateful for the time, effort and love Orthner puts into her creations. He sees first-hand the difference it makes in the lives of the children.

"Claire Orthner began creating beautiful clothing for my charity quite a while ago, and you just can't believe the quality of her work," says Seaman, who donates items to several schools in the coastal area annually. "The children especially love picking out the hats, because of all the colors.

"Mrs. Orthner's love for the children really is expressed in every aspect of her work."

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