‘Ugly Quilts:’ A thing of beauty

Helping the homeless survive the streets one bag at a time

By SANDY LONG

HAWLEY, PA — For 14 years, they’ve gathered in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesdays at the Queen of Peace Catholic Church. Chris Kurre, who coordinates the group’s activities, usually arrives by 6:00 a.m. Soon she is joined by other women who gather up items like donated blankets, needles and thread and take their seats around long tables positioned throughout the church’s basement. As the peaceful work of cutting and stitching begins, the women chatter quietly, catching up on the latest family news or discussing community issues.

The work done by the nine to 12 women over the next few hours will result in the creation of handmade sleeping bags, called Ugly Quilts because they are constructed from recycled blankets, clothing and other fabrics patched together, stuffed, tatted and stitched to create a gift of the heart for homeless individuals served by The Community Intervention Center in Scranton.

In truth, the quilts are anything but ugly, for they are created with the care and dedication of these longtime volunteers, who will never even meet the recipients of their hand-stitched gifts.

Longtime volunteer Joan Everett and her husband deliver the quilts to the Scranton facility, where the bags are, in turn, distributed to the homeless. “It’s an opportunity to do something for someone who doesn’t have much. The quilt keeps them warm and gives them something of their own,” said Everett.

To date, the women have stitched 2,511 Ugly Quilts, including more than 50 sewn since January 1, 2007. On average, they produce four quilts every Tuesday morning, though the record stands at 14 and depends on how many volunteers are able to help. The women tuck a message of hope into each bag.

Kurre and her volunteers work hard to gather the materials that go into the quilts. “I beg wherever I go,” laughed Everett, who is always on the lookout for donations of useful items. “We are so very thankful for every little thing,” said Kurre, who added that their most pressing need is for blankets, bedspreads and quilts to add an insulating layer to the bags.

The project got its start following a visit to the church from Flo Wheatley of Hop Bottom, PA. Founder of the non-profit organization, My Brother’s Keeper, Wheatley told the story of her life-altering encounter with a homeless person while taking her 14-year-old son for treatment at NYC’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

As the weakened teen struggled with nausea while his mother wrestled their luggage to the subway, the pair was assisted by a homeless person who carried their bags and secured a taxi for them. Realizing that the man meant no harm, Wheatley stuffed some cash into his hand as he whispered, “Don’t abandon me.”

Though she never saw the man again, Wheatley encountered many others on repeat trips. Noticing a man wrapped in a crocheted blanket under a bridge one day, Wheatley was struck with the idea that would become Ugly Quilts. Back home, she gathered clothes and blankets and stitched together her first quilt. Many thousands have followed as Wheatley took her message out to church groups and community organizations.

Inspired by her story, Kurre and others decided that they, too, could take part in the effort to help the rising number of homeless people. In its first-ever report to Congress on the status of homelessness in the United States, the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently revealed that just two winters ago, roughly three quarters of a million Americans were living on the streets. People like Wheatley and Kurre realize that the underlying issues are complex, but also believe that they and their fellow volunteers can make a difference—one bag at a time.

What you can do:

To continue their work assisting the homeless, the women are in need of the following items: blankets, comforters, sheets, bedspreads, large fabric swaths, thread, neckties, scarves, hats, gloves and sweaters. Donations are received between 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on Tuesdays at Queen of Peace Church on Church Street, Hawley, PA. In addition, the group welcomes new members of all ages. For instructions on sewing your own Ugly Quilt, visit uglyquilts.org.

TRR photo by Sandy Long
Chris Kurre displays a finished Ugly Quilt in the storage room where she organizes the materials and items used to create the quilts. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Members of the quilting group stand next to the vintage industrial sewing machine they use to patch together recycled fabrics like the ones lying on the table in front of the women. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Eva Muehter, left, and Joan Everett stitch the seams of an Ugly Quilt. In the foreground are additional items like hats, gloves, scarves, books and personal care products that the women provide with each quilt. “Anyone can do this. That’s why they’re called Ugly Quilts,” laughed Muehter. (Click for larger version)