Pieced Together

Quilts are unique expressions of God’s love. Some are crafted for those we hold dear, but most are for strangers. We’re all the same to the lord.

On a rainy evening over 30 years ago, Flo Wheatley stood on a Manhattan street corner with her 14-year-old son, Leonard. Weary from cancer treatments, Leonard sat on one of their two large suitcases, a box of tissues in one hand and a vomit bag clutched in the other. It was rush hour and the sidewalk was crowded with people hurrying past as the rain poured down.

They walked to a set of subway steps, and Leonard readied himself for the difficult descent. While Flo was praying, she heard a voice from behind say, “You need help, lady?” The man was wearing blue jeans and shoes with no socks, an army jacket cut off at the waist and gold-rim glasses with no lenses. She said, “Thank you very much, but I’m fine.”

The man uttered his words again, “You need help, lady?” This time Flo said, “I just need to get to the Seventh Avenue subway.” With that, the man grabbed a suitcase and began walking down the steps to the subway. “The suitcase he grabbed had my money for the week in it, so we had to follow,” Flo says.

The man ducked under the turnstile and stepped onto the first train. Flo and Leonard followed, pushing their way through the crowd. Then she lost him. Trying not to panic, she and her son connected to another train and kept looking for the man. She could only hope and pray. “Then I saw him at the next stop, standing on the platform with my suitcase, and was relieved,” Flo says. “I realized he wasn’t there to hurt me.”

Flo offered the man $5 and thanked him for the help, but he didn’t return the suitcase. Instead, he ran to the street and hailed a cab. Holding the yellow car door open, he shoved the suitcase onto the seat and yelled, “Come on, lady!” As Leonard and Flo approached, the man looked deep into Flo’s eyes and said, “Don’t abandon me.” The three haunting words echoed in Flo’s mind. But Flo was consumed with her son’s medical battle. One woman could only do so much.

The next two years of Flo’s life were wrapped up in taking care of Leonard. Doctor appointments required frequent round trips from their home in Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania, to New York City. With each trip into the city, Flo’s awareness of homeless people grew. “It troubled me to see them huddled over sidewalk grates to keep from freezing. I wanted to help, but all I did was pray for them,” Flo says. Then, one day on her way home, Flo saw a homeless man covered with a pink crocheted blanket. Her heart leapt and she knew it was inspiration from the Spirit. Keep them warm!

Back home, Flo shared what happened with her husband, Jim, and their three teenage children. “We didn’t have a whole lot of money at the time, so I asked the kids to bring me the clothes they weren’t wearing anymore. We cut them up and began sewing a blanket.”

Surrounding the kitchen table, all five worked on the quilt. Once complete, they decided to fold the blanket over and stitch it into a sleeping bag. Large enough for a man and a few possessions, the sleeping bag was ugly—Flo’s word for it—but promised warmth. Jim and Flo drove into the city and gave the quilt to a homeless man huddled near a bridge abutment.

The Wheatleys dubbed their family craft My Brother’s Keeper, and made eight sleeping bags the first year. “It wasn’t long after we started the project that things started arriving at my house–mittens, extra pieces of material. Finally, someone asked us to come down to the church and show a group how to make the sleeping bags,” Flo says. Like reaching a fork in the road, Jim and Flo had to decide what direction they wanted to go. “Jim said to me, ‘If we bring this out to the community, we have to make up our mind if this is what we want to do or not. Because, once this leaves the kitchen table, it will never end.’”

At that time, the Wheatleys made a commitment. They surrendered their lives to God’s will and decided to move forward with My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group and whatever the future might hold. Jim’s prediction proved prophetic. After sharing their sleeping bag project at the first workshop, the ministry exploded. During the second year, 2,000 quilts were made. But by the sixth year, 100,000 quilts were given to the homeless. “We found that people really want to help the homeless—I wanted to help—but none of us know how,” Flo says. “I’ve learned that we’re not prepared to cure homelessness, but we can take a bite out of the pie.”

Grassroots to the core, My Brother’s Keeper runs on no money: There are no dues and the quilts are made of clean fabric that is used or cost-free. “If you want to help, we can teach you how,” Flo says. The sleeping bag project has a simple, standard pattern that the Wheatleys dubbed an “ugly quilt.” A 7×7-foot quilt is folded over, held together by loose stitches and secured with necktie handles. It’s a utility quilt, with no market value to insure the homeless are beneficiaries. Only minimal skills are required for putting each bag together. Anyone, including children, can make a quilt.

Though the Wheatleys had fulfilling careers prior to the sleeping bag project, they view this ministry as their lives’ work. “I’ve learned that we need to do one thing well in life,” Flo says. “Making sleeping bags is what we do and it has carried us through every day.” Now 82 and 76 years old, Jim and Flo have not wavered in their commitment. They pour all their time and energy into sharing the gift of warmth with their homeless neighbors. It’s a heartfelt response to Matthew 25:40, where Jesus encourages believers to help “the least of these” in society. “Our job is to try and keep the homeless people alive by giving them warm sleeping bags to prevent hypothermia,” Flo says. “We hope that, after that, someone else can help or heal them.”

Although the Wheatleys live on a deadend dirt road, the traffic is seemingly nonstop. They are constantly welcoming visitors from near and far. “We get more people here than you can imagine. Sometimes I know they’re coming and sometimes I don’t,” Flo says. People drive out to drop off donations or to learn how to make the quilts. “The whole project is set up so that we are available.” In fact, every part of My Brother’s Keeper is constructed that way. With an ever-expanding mission, the Wheatleys share everything—there are no copyrights and no fees to use the My Brother’s Keeper name, idea or materials.

The tragedy of homelessness happens everywhere. “The greatest need is for people all over the country to serve the homeless in their own backyards,” Flo says.

Looking back at three decades of the sleeping bag project, Flo is amazed by how God has used her family, including her son Leonard, who beat cancer and is now in his 50s and healthy.

“We didn’t pick to do this with our lives. We were chosen to do it. That’s how it works,” she says. Flo’s faith is Christ-centered, and has been since she was 16 years old. “How my life has expanded is one thing, but the fuel that expanded it has stayed the same,” she explains. The ministry gives her an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christian compassion.

Stitch by stitch, a sleeping bag becomes a vessel to give hope to the hopeless. Flo has learned that sharing God’s love isn’t complicated. Every believer has the opportunity to make a difference—it simply takes a willing heart.

For information about the Wheatleys’ ministry or to contact them, go to thesleepingbagproject.org.

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Newborn Quilts

High contrast fabrics, improvisational pieces and aesthetic design are what drew Emily Vardeman to modern quilting. Since learning how to quilt four years ago, she has transformed a beloved hobby into a ministry to others. “That’s my goal in sewing—to make beautiful things that I can give to people to show God’s love,” Emily says. In addition to making quilts as gifts for newborn babies, the busy stay-at-home mom donates quilts to a local crisis pregnancy center and to critically ill children. She’s also the president of the Des Moines Modern Quilt Guild, a group of quilters that meets once a month. “We usually share our quilting projects and encourage one another,” Emily says. For more information about the Des Moines Modern Quilt Guild, visit www.desmoinesmqg.blogspot.com.

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Wedding Quilts

Among the many wedding quilts crafted by Amy Edeker for her children, grandchildren and friends, her favorite is the Dresden Plate pattern. “Cutting out squares and triangles to make a quilt isn’t too hard—I like to try something that’s a little harder,” she says. Each Dresden Plate block features a large flower with multicolored petals, each carefully hand-stitched in place. Another of Amy’s favorites is the Double Wedding Ring pattern. For nearly 100 years, it’s been the most popular design for newlyweds. Quilt historians believe this display of overlapping rings dates back to at least the early 1800s. An all-white bridal quilt featuring stitched floral wreaths and other designs also remains popular. This French style dates to the 1700s.

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Terminally Ill Children's Quilts

When 4-year-old Mollie became sick and was hospitalized, her favorite stuffed bear was taken away. Her mother, Linda Arye, longed to provide Mollie with something that would bring comfort. Now, as founder of a nonprofit called Quilts for Kids in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, Linda supplies 30,000 quilts annually to sick and terminally ill children in hospitals. “When you give a child a quilt that has been made with lots of love by a volunteer, and you wrap the quilt around him or her, it almost always stops the tears and a big smile crosses the child’s face,” Linda says. The ministry seeks corporate sponsors and individuals’ support, including fabrics and quilt donations. For information, go to www.quiltsforkids.org or call 215-295-5484.

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Adopted Children's Quilts

Since teaching herself how to quilt, Anna Boggs has used her skill to bless many new moms, some in her family, some not. “I enjoy doing something special just for the mom and the new baby,” Anna says. She’s had plenty of practice. Within two years, Anna was blessed with six nieces and nephews, including two adoptees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “That quickly made me hone my skills and get better at quilting,” she says. Anna’s labor of love is more than sewing fabric—it’s a prayer ministry. “While I sew, I am praying over the child who will receive the quilt and dreaming about what their life will be like.” She encourages others to try this homespun ministry. Quilting is an absorbing diversion that brings the reward of seeing how much people are warmed by the gift.

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Dara's Quilt

Whenever her daughter wore out or outgrew blue jeans as a child, Margie Poorman stashed them in a closet. Her daughter, L:B graphic designer Dara Poorman, didn’t see the fabrics again until she received a quilt as a college going-away gift from her mother. Margie made it after learning to quilt from a neighbor and quilters at church. Quilt materials included sunflowers on denim that remind Dara of her grandmother, tuxedo-like strips in a bluish white and neon yellow from her “cool” middle school days and a cutting from a jeans skirt painted by a mentor, who has passed away. “I cherish this quilt,” Dara says. “It was painstaking work for my mother to sew it together on a 1970 Singer sewing machine that seized every now and then.”

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Heidi Kaisand's Quilts

Heidi Kaisand’s lifelong love for quilting began as a young girl, learning from her grandmother. Heidi now owns Hen and Chicks Studio, a quilting and scrapbooking retreat center in Conrad, Iowa. “I still get to do what I am passionate about: Helping people make quilts,” she says. Heidi quilts as often as possible, and her favorite recipients are newlyweds. “It’s fun to put extra thought into a quilt and give a gift that means so much to someone.” In 1993, she joined the first staff of American Patchwork and Quilting magazine. Fourteen years later, Heidi traded in her 75-mile commute so she could work closer to home. She opened her studio in 2011. Visit ww.henandchicksstudio.com or call 641-366-3336.

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Bethany's Quilt

In early 2002, Bethany battled a rapidly growing brain tumor and was always ready for a reason to smile. That’s when her closest college friends showed up with the Bethany Memory Quilt. The house filled with young women, laughter, hugging and tears. Only two years earlier, these friends were together as students at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. Now they had come to bid one of their own farewell. Though Bethany’s energy level was waning, she beamed as she closely examined each quilt block made by her friends. Design motifs ranged from funny to spiritual, including a reference to VeggieTales from childhood, college memories and Bible verses. The quilt remains as a treasured keepsake of her life and passing.


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