It began with just learning a stitch.

Now some of Debra Beattie's sewing students at Union Alternative School are making dresses, pajamas and pillows.

"I just wanted to do something that I felt like they could use for the rest of their life if they ever got their hands on a sewing machine," she said.

Beattie, a science teacher, was rummaging through items in a school warehouse marked to be thrown out when she found 10 Bernina model 1008 sewing machines left over from the era of home economics classes.

So she had the machines repaired and began a sewing class.

Students go to Union Alternative School because they are considered at risk of dropping out of school.

Some have drug problems. Others are young parents. Many have family problems or mental-health issues.

"This will give them a skill that is something different than doing fast food and restaurant work," Beattie said. "This gives them another option to do something else and also provide for their family."

In the process, students are building their self-esteem and confidence, she said.

"A lot of times when these kids do something hands-on, they learn more and understand more," Beattie said. "Besides, they're the ones doing it, and it's just real fulfilling."

Beattie also invited residents of nearby assisted living and retirement centers to help teach the students.

One of those is Rosalie Perkins, who previously taught adult sewing classes.

For a number of years, she actually taught classes for the Bernina company.

"I've been truly blessed, and I just feel like if I can share just a little bit, why, maybe it would help one or two of them along the way," she said.

Perkins said she didn't know what to expect of the students, but she has been impressed with them.

"None of these kids had ever threaded a needle or sat at a sewing machine," she said.

Now they're making dresses and pajamas and pillows.

"They need to be understood and to know that they have some control over their lives, that there's people that are willing to help, because some of these kids haven't had a lot of that," she said.

Some of the benefits of the sewing class are intangible.

As the older women sit and share their experiences with the young people, a bond develops, Beattie said.

"I want these kids to realize, you know, they're not the only ones who have had to live through hard times or had some kind of trauma in their life," she said.

"They can get something from older people, get some kind of validation of who they are and where they've been."

The sewing class is popular, and several teenagers have really taken to it.

"Some of them have just gone crazy," Beattie said. "I've got one girl just going to town. She's like Mario Andretti on the sewing machine. I've had some who've made dresses and pants.

"One guy made a hat, and he's made a baby blanket for his kid."

Students today often don't learn life skills because home economics and shop classes have mostly disappeared, Beattie said.

"That's just gone to the wayside, and I think that's so sad," she said. "How many of us as adults need that? We've got to fix things around the house or cook for ourselves."

The class uses donated fabric, bobbins and other materials. In turn, Beattie plans for the class to make receiving blankets and personally donate them at area hospitals.

She also would like students to make a quilt to auction off to benefit the Union Education Foundation.

"I want them to help people and donate things and get that feeling of helping other people," she said.

"It's your own natural high. You don't have to do drugs to get high on that."