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Stitching Together a Community: How a Quilter's Group is more than a Senior Center Activity

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A senior center may conjure up the idea of a quiet space where the elderly share grandchildren trading cards and take long naps.  It serves the older adult community through lunch and a lending library.

But imagine, for a moment, that the septuagenarian entering the doors has no interest in playing bridge.  Instead, the center is her base of operations to carry out a mission geared toward social justice and child welfare.  She is a caped crusader, among a network of venerable matriarchs and armed with scraps of fabric.  She is a five-foot-nothing heroine.  She is a quilter.

Quilter Group

Now, a quilting group at a senior center may not seem like anything new – but a quilter has the power to have a profound impact on the community at-large.

This was made obvious to me when I met Mary Parish, the spritely and affable, unelected rotational leader, of Comforts for Children.  Comforts for Children (CFC) is a not-for-profit quilting group that serves the community by donating quilts to more than 10 recipient agencies who serve at-risk kids.  They take residence in Eugene’s Campbell Community Center.

“It gets me out of the house,” said Mary simply.  “It is an outlet for creativity, and it is cleaner than gardening.”

Mary has been quilting with the group for over 16 years, or so she says.  She admitted she has lost track.  The social aspect, for her, is a big part of why she is involved.

There is a job for everyone who wants to help.  For some in the group, cutting pieces for quilts is their focus.  For others, they prefer to sew. 

A quilter from the end of the room chirped up, “Often times a quilt will be finished by 4 of us.” 

Mary says she likes picking out the colors and putting together the design.  In her hands she held a square of fabric with a sea turtle against a turquoise watery backdrop.  “I want to find something nice to go with the turtles” she offered.

Not everyone in the group can physically make it quilting hours.  And they’ve thought of that.

“We want to be a part of the community.  That is why Jean started making kits” explained Mary.  Jean Liittschwager, founder and program director for many years, developed “kits” of precut quilting squares, a design, and instructions.  Visitors or groups could come and “check out” a kit, which they would sew in their own time and return the finished product to the group as a donation. 

Besides the ability to reach a community of seniors, the kits also enabled CFC to offer basic supplies and instructions to children’s groups and schools.

“I’ve always wanted to teach quilting,” said Mary.  “And when the kids make them, they are so cool!”

Now, school children are participating in the cycle of service to the community through the quilting program.  But this isn’t the only way in which the quilter group is extending beyond the walls of the center.

“The purpose is to give them away,” said Mary, “from birth to 17 years old.  But we mostly make baby quilts.”

And give away they do!  As of July 31st, CFC has distributed 32,881 quilts.  Since inception in 1991, that averages 100 quilts a month.  Of those, a couple are selected to be sold publicly.  The money generated goes to help purchase batting for the quilts and any necessary sewing machine maintenance.  Almost all the other fabric used is donated.

 “We get a lot of demand for boy’s quilts.  Always boy’s quilts” harrumphed Mary.  “But keep in mind, it’s little old ladies making these quilts.  We like making girls things!” 

Mary then recalled a recent donation request they received to make 18 full twin-sized quilts for a group of unhoused, high school girls.  She sighed fondly at the memory, expressing the joy of making what she called “girly quilts”. 

In this, and many other cases, the quilters are not donating to just a shelter or hospital – they know who will receive the quilts.  The quilts are made with the recipient in mind.

When asking Mary about any other donations that stood out, she said, “last year we donated two quilts to Syrian Refugees at the airport.”

No further description was provided.  None was needed.  The impact of that statement was enough to realize that the work these women do is important to them.

How is it possible that this group is able to rally to a cause so easily, for so many years, and be so productive?  The answer might just be the community center itself.

“There is no downside to having this kind of program in the community,” said Diane Sconce, Recreation Manager for the Campbell Community Center.  “One limitation, however, would be space.  It would be difficult for them to haul their machines here and back every Thursday, and their material in and out.  So we allow them storage space.  That is their room.”

The Campbell Community Center experiences a drought of storage space.  (My understanding is that “More Storage” is the uniting call of senior center managers everywhere.)  Therefore, providing the space is no small feat.

The Center also posts information about the quilting group in their program guide.  This draws in new people, but even allows other visitors to observe and feel connected to the group.  “It is a social outlet for them and the other people in the center because people wander in and out to see what they are working on” said Sconce.

“It is a feel good program because they are doing good work for the community,” expressed Sconce.  “And it is a mutually beneficial relationship.”

There is a lesson we can take away from this relationship.  As our population ages, the demand for spaces such as the Campbell Center continues to grow.  Our programs do not exist in a vacuum.  We have the opportunity to make a lasting effect in our world.  Older adults want to be active, social, and serve the community.

In an effort to serve the older adult population through the provisioning of a space for quilting, the Campbell Community Center has indirectly improved the lives of children in Lane County. 

And it isn’t as hard as it seams. 

--

  Sample Quilt

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