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A staffer at the Madison Senior Center, Cynthia Barker has made an impact by spearheading programs and groups such as Masks for Madison, a community effort that sewed and gave out some 1,500 face masks; Nimble Thimble, a group of needlepoint crafters; and The Girls, a small circle of women near or well into their 90s who now share a friendship. (Photo by Maria Caulfield )
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When Cynthia Barker, a part-time staffer at the Madison Senior Center, began sewing protective face masks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she quickly realized that the effort can multiply exponentially if many more hands were involved in the work.
So, she put together kits, each containing a pattern, fabric, and elastic—all the materials necessary to make 10 masks. Then, she put the word out that people with sewing skills were needed to help make the masks.
She was hopeful that a few helpers would respond. She was off by a wide margin.
More than 55 volunteers came forward asking for the kits to help with the effort.
Of all the volunteers, perhaps the best was a diligent 10-year old girl who enjoyed sewing the masks and kept churning them out. Her mother kept coming back for more kits for her daughter.
To this day, Cynthia doesn’t know the name of that young girl. But she was so impressed with the little girl’s work that she is determined to find out.
She told Director of Senior Services Austin Hall and Assistant Director Heather Noblin, “When things get back normal, whenever that is, I’d like to meet her and thank her personally.”
Indeed, thanks to the work of that little girl and many others, Masks for Madison quickly produced about 1,500 masks. The masks were made available at the Senior Center for anyone who needed them.
Cynthia’s love for sewing led to another program at the Senior Center.
Aptly named Nimble Thimble, the group met every Thursday prior to the COVID-19 outbreak to do needlepoint projects. It was a way for seniors to keep company and stay motivated to finish their own needlepoint work.
Although COVID-19 led to an interruption in all programs, Cynthia hopes to resume meetings with Nimble Thimble when the Senior Center reopens.
The beginning of the needlepoint group, one might say, came from a unicorn.
After finishing one of her needlepoint projects, Cynthia brought it in for the seniors to enjoy.
Admiring the work, one nonagenarian lady asked if Cynthia would complete an unfinished project for her.
“Sight unseen, I said ‘Yes,’” Cynthia recalls.
She was, of course, rather surprised when the lady brought a good-sized, intricate needlepoint canvas showing a replica of a popular tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity.
She also noticed that on the needlepoint canvas, only one flower had been done. But because she had agreed to finish the project, she set out to work, determined to complete it.
She did it in 18 months.
Today, The Unicorn in Captivity is framed and hangs above the fireplace in the Senior Center library.
That project led others to ask if she would form a needlepoint group. It was an invitation she could not resist and, through Nimble Thimble, Cynthia shares her love of the craft.
That love for needlepoint is evident when Cynthia brings her projects to the Senior Center where she can work on them behind her desk. She is also known to take along her dog—when she was hired, she was given permission to bring her dog Sophie, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, to work.
“One Sunday, I was working on the needlepoint and an AA meeting was going on in the café. I could see people walking by when I was working on the needlepoint,” Cynthia recalls.
But she kept her head down, engrossed with her work, even when a woman came by her desk.
“She slowly walked by the desk, stopped, turned, walked back by the desk, turned, came up to the desk and said, ‘Are you sleeping on the job?’”
Cynthia denied dozing off, but the lady was unconvinced. Apparently, the woman also heard someone snoring while Cynthia had her head down.
So, she invited the woman to come behind the desk.
On the floor lay Sophie “snoring like a trooper,” Cynthia says. It was one of the happy memories she has of Sophie.
Later, after Sophie died, she adopted Marti, a blind dog she has come to love.
“He’s well-mannered,” she says of Marti. “As long as he’s with me, he’s as happy as a clam.”
She also jokes that while blind people have seeing-eye dogs, she is a seeing-eye person for her blind dog.
Cynthia finds fulfillment nurturing others, which is perhaps why she enjoys working at the Senior Center.
She formed a kinship with a group of women who are either close to or well into their 90s.
There’s Gloria, Rosemary, Sally, and another Cynthia. She affectionately calls them “The Girls.”
“The thing about calling them ‘The Girls,’ it’s done with the greatest respect and love,” she says.
She takes The Girls out and plans things for them to do.
“I’m the ringleader, I guess you might say,” she admits.
“I met them at the Senior Center, not as a group. These women, probably when they were growing up, they would have never known each other,” she explains, but at the Senior Center, they bond and share a friendship.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cynthia would plan surprise birthday parties for each of The Girls at her own home.
“The problem is, I found, when people get up in their late 80s and into their 90s, most of their families are gone. Their friends are gone, and they’re kind of alone,” she explains. “So, I would find out when each birthday was, and I would have them [at my home]. I invite them over for a dinner and a movie and surprise! We have a birthday party.”
Although the pandemic halted plans for any near-future parties, she still brings home-cooked dinners on Sundays for each of The Girls.
Taking Life as it Comes
Much of Cynthia’s life has been spent caring for others, including her two children.
Sadly, one of them, Anita, passed away in 2018.
But in spite of the difficult times, Cynthia admits she has a fortunate life, one filled with heart-warming memories.
She joined the Peace Corps on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. Shortly after, she left for El Salvador with Chandler, her husband at the time, to help the local men and women in their daily living.
She worked with the women of Zacatecoluca, a small village not far from the Pacific coast.
The women, she noticed, suffered from constant back problems because they had to hunch over while they cooked their meals from a fire on the ground.
So, she devised a way to build a standing adobe stove, a simple yet significant solution that helped ease the work of the local women.
On another occasion, she was tasked to prepare a group of women who were traveling to the United State to become au pairs. They were set to arrive in Massachusetts in the middle of winter. To help them adjust, she knew she had to make them understand how cold winters in Massachusetts can be.
“We had this 1930s refrigerator that had a tiny, tiny ice compartment that always frosted up,” she says. “So, I would put their hands in the freezer and tell them, ‘That’s how cold it’s going to be.’”
The women understood, so they decided to sew warmer clothes. Days later, they excitedly came back to Cynthia to show her their garments.
Yes, the clothes were flannel-lined.
“But they were sleeveless,” she says with a laugh.
She remained in El Salvador for three years, then returned to the U.S.
“When we came back from the Peace Corps, I was expecting our first child and I needed to work. But I didn’t want to leave home. I wanted to stay and raise our children,” she recalls.
So, she decided to start her own business, Custom Cloth by Cynthia, a successful window treatments shop that served clients nationwide. To visit her clients, she piloted her own plane, a Cherokee 180.
“At one point I had five people working for me. My work was mainly for designers although I also did private work,” she says.
She kept the business going for 50 years, until 2010.
“I just took life as it came and made the best of whatever it was,” she says.
“When I had my business, all I did was work. Since I retired, I have enjoyed volunteering,” she adds.
Now, she relishes spending her time helping the seniors at the Madison Senior Center, a place she calls “my home away from home.”
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The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!