Ugly Quilt Tradition Going Strong on 30th Anniversary
By Rick Hiduk
For 20 years, members of Spring Hill United Methodist Church (UMC) have been gathering on Monday mornings in the community hall to pull together fragments of discarded fabric to create “ugly quilts,” which are actually attractive handcrafted sleeping bags that are then paired with a gift bag full of sundries, treats, and Christian literature. The finished product is shipped to a church in Tunkhannock, from which the couple that brought the idea to local outreach groups packages them for distribution to homeless people in New York City and other locations.
“It’s our mission,” explained Spring Hill parishioner Jeanne Fiske, who helps to coordinate the project at the church with her husband, Louis. “We encourage people to go to a homeless shelter first,” she said of the importance of truly understanding the need for the sleeping bags before becoming one of the crew members.
The Ugly Quilt Project was founded 30 years ago by Flo and Jim Wheatley of Hop Bottom as a family project. Their efforts soon caught the attention of neighbors and spread among area churches. The simplicity of the construction of the sleeping bags, coupled with Flo’s story of how the plea of one homeless man changed her life, has struck a nerve with hundreds of parishioners who were searching for outreach projects with purpose.
Flo related that she was in New York City to take her ailing son to a cancer specialist. On a particularly rainy day, she had to pause outside the entrance to a subway terminal because her son was feeling nauseous. A shabby stranger approached her and more or less insisted that she needed help. She was startled and brushed the man off at first, but he insisted on carrying her luggage down the stairway into the station.
He did not know that one of the two suitcases he had taken from her contained all of the cash that Flo had set aside for the trip. She had no choice but to grab her son by the hand and follow the stranger underground and from one subway car to another. The man escorted Flo and her son to Flushing, but his assistance did not end there. He took the two into the street and secured a cab for them. As she pressed a five-dollar bill into the hand of the somewhat unkempt man just before he closed the taxi door, he said “Don’t abandon me.”
His words haunted her as she made repeated trips to Manhattan, although she never saw that stranger again. She did, however, start to recognize several other homeless people in her journeys and one day spied an apparently homemade pink, crocheted blanket covering a man whom Flo had seen before sleeping under a bridge.
A light turned on over her head, and Flo had found her calling. Sewing was already one of her pas-times, so she shared her idea with her family and together they crafted the first of hundreds of eight sleeping bags from fabric scraps and pieces of old clothing that they would take to New York that year and distribute to homeless people. The Wheatleys referred to their meaningful endeavor as My Brother’s Keeper, and they kept on sewing.
One day, a neighbor offered Flo some mittens and fabric scraps and asked her if she would do a demonstration at her church, as a general curiosity about the hand-stitched sleeping bags had taken hold.
“People wanted to help the homeless, and they needed a way to do it,” said Flo of the request by members of Lake Winola United Methodist Church. She told her neighbor, “I’ll come and show it if you invite all of the area churches to be there.” Parishioners representing seven denominations showed up at the first meeting.
“It’s an amazingly blessed project and God chose us to show it to people. And the community really took to it,” Flo related, adding that she now receives inquiries from people across the United States and as far away as Africa to find out how to get started.
“It’s a cost free project using recycled materials,” Flo remarked. “No one gets paid. It’s an all volunteer project, and I think that’s what appeals to people.”
At Spring Hill UMC on Oct. 10, members of the quilting crew were excited about new bolts of fabric that had been dropped off on the doorstep of the community center. Tables were set up in two adjoining rooms, and the quilts were being constructed by about eight people in an assembly-line manner, with fabric pieces first sewn into one solid seven-by-seven foot piece, folded in half, stitch tied, and turned inside out, at which point a cloth tie strap is added before the sleeping bag is filled with donated items that include articles of winter clothing, many of which are homemade by younger church members.
When it was mentioned to Flo that the finished ugly quilts made by the Spring Hill parishioners would actually be considered “attractive” by many people, she sighed. “Women are women. It’s tempting to make them pretty, and people give us some really nice stuff to work with,” Flo explained. “I push the word ‘ugly,’ however, because I don’t want people to start making them as gifts for family members.” It should be mentioned that there are a number of men involved with the project at most churches, perhaps to help maintain the “ugly” aspect of the endeavor.
Flo also related that the Ugly Quilt Project, known online as the Sleeping Bag Project, was recently recognized with a Grand Matrons Achievement Award by the Eastern Star organization in New York state, which Flo sees as a fitting honor for everyone who has been involved with the venture as it marks its 30th year.
For more information about the project, readers may log on to www.thesleepingbagproject.org. To contribute fabric or items to be enclosed in the sleeping bags, contact Spring Hill UMC at 570-746-3671 to find out what types of items might be in short supply.