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Quilting for a cause: Long Island groups stitch through pandemic

Mary Ellen Orchard, a Wantagh resident and member

Mary Ellen Orchard, a Wantagh resident and member of the Long Island Quilters' Society, talks about making quilts to donate during the pandemic.  Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

On a recent Friday, Marilyn Hamilton Jackson described quilts as if she were talking about the bright, beautiful works of a painter. Hers have hung at the Elmont, Uniondale and Mineola libraries and at Kente Royal Gallery in Manhattan. She has also been commissioned to create quilts. But much of her work has a very different destination — Jackson makes quilts to be donated to social services and health care organizations where they provide physical and spiritual warmth.

Among them, a black, white and gray quilt made for a family whose loved one died from illness as a result of the 9/11 attack; she made a different quilt, decorated with colorful horses, birds and cows, for a child.

"It’s my way of giving back," said Jackson, 70, of Laurelton, Queens. "I get a lot of pleasure and fulfillment from knowing it’s helping people in need."

Jackson is part of Long Island’s charity quilting scene. And the pandemic hasn't slowed them down.

Among the groups with a charity component are Freeport-based Long Island Quilters' Society, Quilters in the Park of East Meadow, Huntington Quilters, Eastern Long Island Quilters, Great South Bay Quilters, Smithtown Stitchers and Mineola-based Evening Star Quilters. (These sewers have also made thousands of masks and other goods for hospitals, shelters, veterans’ groups and more.)

"People say it’s a blanket, but when they go out charitably, they’re more than a blanket," said Pat Roaldsen, 72, of Wantagh, co-president with Marie Martin, 82, of Freeport, of the 160-member Long Island Quilters' Society. "They’re a source of comfort."

Nancy Cohan, vice president of grants and program development for the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association, said the quilters have donated hundreds to children at its Lynn Vanderhall Nursery Co-Op in Hempstead. "Quilts provide nurturing, comfort and support," she said. "They’re made by people who work really hard to give quilts to people they’ve never known."

The art of giving

Roaldsen described the sewers’ altruism as an important part of quilting culture, saying, "You get caught up in the charitable aspect.".

The Huntington Quilters work with area nonprofits and have specific membership requirements. "Each member is required to make at least one pro bono quilt per year as part of their membership," said member Kathy Kelner, who runs the group’s website.

Simple quilts can be made in a few days, but "elaborate patterns can take weeks," Roaldsen added. A simple machine-stitched quilt could easily take 20 to 50 hours, while sewing by hand can take months, she said.

Nivia Maldonado, 61, of Levittown, noted that one of her creations can take as long as a month. "I feel like I’m giving a part of my heart."

Piecing together the colorful puzzles takes time, effort, skill and fabric. Jackson, a member of the Long Island Quilters' Society and Evening Star Quilters, in Mineola, said fabrics often cost $10 to $13 a yard. A twin-size quilt, for example, might take 8 to 10 yards of fabric.

"Fabric has gotten quite pricey," Jackson said. "We try to use 100% cotton. They [the quilts] should be washable."

Since quilters typically piece together projects from various fabrics, they often pool resources. Maldonado has shared fabric, quilt frames and various supplies with senior citizens at the Rainbow Senior Center in Lindenhurst through Quilters in the Park. She also has completed projects with "extra blocks ladies donated and scraps of vintage fabrics that were exactly what I needed."

"It’s amazing at times how things come together over time. It becomes a win-win situation," she said. "Someone’s trash becomes my true treasure."

The quilters sew with a mind to who’s receiving their blankets: Red, white and blue might be used for veterans; bright colors and cartoon characters for children. "Design-wise and creatively, we try to make it as appealing as possible," Jackson said.

Or quilts might be designed to engender peace and calm. "I think people need that connection to home for comfort and yet want to be surrounded by hope, hence the lighter colors," said Mary Ellen Orchard, 74, Facebook administrator for the Long Island Quilters' Society and Quilters in the Park. "Floral motifs tend to be sprouting around."

Types of quilts

The quilts come in many sizes: "for preemies, babies, twin-size and adult-bed size," said Orchard, of Wantagh.

Maldonado donated a lap quilt to a woman in the Ross Center for Health & Rehabilitation in Brentwood; she made smaller quilts for newborns.

Quilters also donate cotton pillowcases, chemo port pillows for chemotherapy, scrub caps to be used in hospitals, and place mats intended for Meals on Wheels’ clients, said Judy Wollman, 77, of Levittown, chairwoman of Long Island Quilters' Society’s donation committee and a member of Quilters in the Park.

They make "trauma" dolls for children at hospitals including Cohen Children’s Medical Center. "These are little dolls made of fabric with hospital gowns on them and no face," Wollman added. "The children make faces on them." The dolls are used to explain where an injury is before an operation.

Cohan said a child’s quilt can become a prized possession. "These become their blankets. They keep them for years," she said.

Quilters themselves tend to be older, but Orchard said there’s still diversity. "We have teachers, executives, published artists, accountants, medical professionals," she said. "And we have men."

Some start young, but many begin later in life, like Jackson, who took up quilting after retiring in 2006 from teaching dance and American history at Harbor Jr. High School for the Performing Arts in East Harlem, Manhattan. "My gift to myself when I retired was to learn how to quilt," she said. "It was something that I always wanted to do."

Orchard puts it simply. "The best thing I've done since retirement?" she said. "Becoming a quilter."

Maldonado, a former elementary and middle school teacher and administrator in Brownsville and Bushwick, Brooklyn, began quilting after retiring in 2015. "I always sewed," she said. "I met women who were so knowledgeable. They became my mentors and teachers and they introduced me to charities they worked with."

Charity amid pandemic

Quilting groups don’t meet the way they did pre-COVID-19, although many hold sessions online.

"We can’t physically meet together and work on the quilts," said Mario Mulea, 64, of Bayside, Queens. He is also president of Long Island Modern Quilt Guild in East Northport. "We’re doing everything by Zoom."

COVID-19 has complicated charitable efforts, including collecting and donating quilts. Long Island Quilters' Society and Quilters in the Park set up drop-off boxes in Eisenhower Park. "With COVID, we’re trying to be careful," Jackson said.

Wollman delivered 22 preemie quilts, about 3 by 31/2 feet, to Mercy Medical Centre in Rockville Centre in November. "I went to the front of the hospital and called them," she said. "They came out and I gave it to them. I didn’t go into the hospital."

While Maldonado prefers to give quilts in person, she recalled the connection made after she mailed a blue-and-white quilt to a mother for her baby during the pandemic. "She sent me a picture of the baby on it," Maldonado said.

Maldonado, who has donated nearly 40 quilts, documents her work in a spreadsheet. "It’s my memory of what I’ve done in the past five years," she said.

Roaldsen said quilters are buoyed by making and giving, and they're encouraged to label each quilt with their name and the recipient's name and why it was made. "It’s gratifying to give people something that’s going to comfort them," she said. "I’ve made great friends. … I get more out of it than I put into it."

A personal touch

Many donate their products to groups, but Nivia Maldonado, 61, of Levittown likes to find individuals for whom she creates quilts. “I find local people who have served [in the military] by word-of-mouth,” she said of veterans to whom she has given quilts.

Maldonado also made a quilt for a woman moving with her son from a shelter. “I personalized it with his name for his fourth birthday,” she said of the quilt with “Paw Patrol” characters. “She was so thrilled. She had just moved into her new apartment.”

Maldonado made a red, white and blue quilt with a butterfly pattern for her aunt who has one son in the Air Force and one in the Marines.

And she mailed a quilt to a Korean War veteran she met in a restaurant while vacationing in North Carolina. “It was a red, white and blue quilt,” Maldonado said. “A simple quilt.”

— Claude Solnik

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