A Simple Act Makes a Difference

Sometimes it’s easy to become complacent whether it be in your own community or beyond. Many people question if anything they do can truly make a difference and often, assuming that they can’t, don’t even try. If you find yourself falling into this rut, take a look at what two women are doing to bring joy to veterans and active service members.

Bonnie Aker and Kathi Henderson of Albuquerque, New Mexico are quilters with big hearts, huge hearts actually. They don’t just make quilts; they make quilts with a purpose. Since 2011 they have made 45 Quilts of Valor, 25 of which have been donated to veterans on dialysis at the VA Hospital in Albuquerque.

What is a Quilt of Valor? It’s an organization full of volunteers who make quilts for veterans and service members touched by war. As of this writing QOV volunteers have made and donated 151,768 quilts. Just to give you an idea of what this entails, most quilts without a lot of complicated design take 25-45 hours to complete (some longer, some shorter). Averaging 35 hours per quilt that comes out to over 5.3 million hours! Now that’s a lot of heart. You must be wondering how all these people came together to make these quilts for our deserving military.

To give you a little background, the Quilts of Valor Foundation began in 2003 while founder Catherine Roberts’ son Nat was deployed in Iraq. She had a dream that her son was battling war demons and in the next scene he was wrapped in a quilt, his demons at bay. She knew what she had to do and QOV was born. The organization awarded its first quilt in November 2003 to a young soldier from Minnesota who had lost his leg in Iraq. From there it grew, went viral in internet-speak.

Fast forward to 2011 when Kathi and Bonnie got involved. They learned that Sue Wolf of the QoV Foundation put out a call for quilts. That was all the impetus they needed to start sewing. Several of the quilts they made were for what Bonnie and Kathi call “woodworkers”, veterans who were having a hard time with issues ranging from depression to alcoholism, vets who seemed to come “out of the woodwork” when presented with a handmade quilt.

Several quilts stand out in their collective memory. When they heard about Marine SSGT Andrew Saiz, awarded a Silver Star, who was killed with six of his MARSOC Raiders 5 team members in a training helicopter crash off the coast of North Carolina in March 2015, they made one for his parents.

Another quilt took on personal significance. They designed and personalized a quilt to honor a close friend, one of Albuquerque’s true heroes, John Bode, who was awarded an Air Force Cross for valor in Vietnam.  They created a “T-shirt Quilt”, with pictures, logos and airplanes depicted on the shirts. John Bode is a pretty stoic guy, but even he couldn’t keep his eyes from welling up when given the quilt that documented his years in Vietnam.

        

And then there is “Ted’s Quilt”, that will probably stand out as one of the most significant quilts the women ever made. It was conceived after a trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina in September 2016. John Bode received a call that one of his buddies from his Air Force fighter pilot training days over 60 years ago was going through a rough patch. As soon as he spoke with his old friend, Ted, he knew he had to fly east.  You see Ted had been captured and imprisoned in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” (yeah, THAT Hanoi Hilton); he was a POW for 6-1/2 years in what can only be described as a hell hole. It was Ted’s imprisonment that compelled John to volunteer to go to Vietnam. With a history and bond like that it’s no wonder that John sprung into action when he heard his buddy was having a hard time. Kathi and her husband, Air Force Colonel (ret), Wally Henderson flew with John and his wife, Diane, to South Carolina.

At his home Ted showed the group around his “I-Love-Me Room”, the study that his dear wife Ruth had decorated for him with all of Ted’s medals, pictures of all the jets Ted had flown in his Air Force career, all of his unit patches, all of his commendations and achievement awards, and his pictures of being released as a POW. After Ruth’s passing the room took on even greater meaning.

The tour of Ted’s study haunted Kathi. She couldn’t forget Ruth’s careful placement of each item and the love that permeated that room. It was as though Ruth took up residence in the study. The moment Kathi returned from the trip to Spartanburg, she knew exactly what she needed to do and began to design a personalized quilt for Ted. It had to be a T-Shirt quilt, though different than John Bode’s.  It had to have all the elements that Ruth had included in Ted’s study, not an easy task. But given the wonders of the internet she was able to find a number of websites that offered military T-Shirts including all the military jets Ted had flown – the F-86 Sabre, the F-100 Super-Sabre, the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief, as well as the POW/MIA logo, a map of Vietnam, and a “TAC Patch” shirt. First Kathi made fabric transfers of pictures that she had taken in South Carolina and incorporated them into the quilt design. She found two of Ted’s unit patches on eBay – the 13th and the 44th – to appliqué onto the quilt as a finishing touch. She framed the design with fabric featuring grey pilot wings on a red background; the sashing (strips between the blocks) displayed a blue sky with clouds. She even found US Air Force licensed fabric for the back.  After Kathi completed the top and made it into a “quilt sandwich” with the batting and backing fabric, Bonnie machine-quilted it with a military jet pattern on her 12-foot long-arm sewing machine.  Kathi hand-bound the quilt, sewed a label onto the back and appliquéd on the two patches.

Now this is where serendipity chimes into the story. On the following Monday, out of the blue, Ted emailed John and Kathi a letter he had written to Ruth when he was a POW; it was dated Christmas 1970. All it said was, “After four years. No end in sight. Ted”.  Kathi felt like the email was asking for some response, though she wasn’t sure what could be said. She wrote back, “Your letter from 46 years ago touched my heart. Is this your first Christmas without your beloved Ruth?” His reply, “It’s the second. She passed away Dec 16 last year. Ted”.  This unexpected exchange of emails happened on December 13th.

Suddenly everything fell into place. Kathi said, “The quilt positively, absolutely, unmistakenly HAD to be delivered on Friday, December 16th, the first anniversary of Ruth’s passing.”

After Ted opened the package on that Friday, the delivery right on schedule, he wrote, “I am amazed, flabbergasted, dumbstruck. I could not believe what I was unfolding! What wonderful workmanship. My sister came over later and took  pictures. She wants to hang it on one of my walls. I said not until I spend the rest of the winter keeping warm with it. You are right. I can feel the warmth and love that comes with it. PS. Ruth loves it too.”

Kathi replied, “Ted, I believe our visit in September, the conception of a QoV for you, the design, the timing — were all meant to be. Call it the work of angels; call it kismet; call it karma; call it quantum entanglement. It was just meant to be. I know Ruth loves it…”

Talk about making a difference. So the next time you think you can’t do something to brighten the life of another, think again. The simplest act can make the greatest impact in ways you can never imagine. Kudos to Kathi and Bonnie for keeping the spirit of giving back alive.

For more information on the Quilts of Valor Foundation please visit them here.

Making It Through The Night

Chris Meyer is not having a good night. Tossing and turning, reliving nightmarish flashes, sometimes even uncomfortable night sweats—all a part of the PTSD which accompanies so many returning service men and women. If left unchecked, an alarming number fall into a depression which, tragically, ends for far too many in suicide.

But Chris is fortunate. Not only is he receiving good medical attention, but he has the constant attention of Jade, his partner, confidant, and safe to say, his love. When Chris is having another debilitating nightmare, Jade is right there to wake him from his torture, to assure him everything is all right and he is safe.

MITTN ChrisYou may be wondering what would be the best way to wake a PTSD suffering person without compounding their fright. Jade has perfected the process—first she nudges Chris a few times with her nose, then her long tongue starts bathing his face. Chris wakes up quickly; the terror abated.

You see, Jade is a service dog—a loving Golden Retriever/Shepherd mix, who was painstakingly trained by Graham Bloem, founder of Shelter to Soldier. But providing care-giving dogs to veterans is only part of the Shelter to Soldier story.

MITTN Jade at the park

Graham scours the many local shelters looking for 40 – 50 pound dogs who he can determine have the temperament and intelligence to respond to training as a service dog. MITTN GrahamAfter checking them for optimal health and getting a head x-ray, many of the dogs he tests don’t make the cut. Many of those who do test well were precariously existing on the euthanasia list because no one wanted to adopt them. Graham then saves them and begins their training.

You may rightly say that this process saves two lives at once: the dog’s and the veteran’s. Win-win! But there’s more to the story.

This isn’t one of those places that just finds a dog, then a veteran, and says “Here you go!” No, Shelter to Soldier spends several thousand dollars per dog for medical care and housing during the 12 to 18 months it takes to thoroughly train them as service dogs.

The veterans go through a careful screening process as well, starting with a doctor’s recommendation to the initial telephone interviews. Then the veteran visits the training facility to see how they interact with dogs—and vice versa. When Graham makes a suitable match, he trains the dog to be sensitive to those issues which plague the veteran.

According to 1st Sgt. Tomas Mondares, his dog Sandy (a female Shepherd/Labrador mix), senses when he gets anxious from seeing shadows after dark. Sometimes he gets easily irritated. That’s when she will side up next to him, ‘herding’ him away from the stimulus and de-escalating the situation. It’s like a friend reminding him that “it’s OK Tomas —just chill”.

MITTN Tomas & Sandy gradBut the training isn’t just for the dogs. No, Graham requires that the veteran actively participate in the training a couple of times a week over a period of months. That way the veteran becomes certified as a dog handler, and the dog intuitively learns about the needs of the veteran. At the end of training there is a graduation ceremony for each veteran and dog, concluding with certificates of completion and competency.

For Chris Meyer, knowing that Jade senses when he is in dire need, and has been taught to push a button to administer medication provides great peace of mind. For Tomas Mondares, who received severe injuries to his back and hip during a deployment, having Sandy help him get up when he can’t on his own is crucial.

Graham served a stint in a pet nutrition store, and then as a dog trainer at a large animal shelter. That’s when he discovered his innate talent for connecting with dogs and training them to be caregivers, and Shelter to Soldier began as a non-profit 2012. To date they have placed nine dogs with veterans, with eight more dogs now in training.

According to Graham’s wife, Kyrie, who takes care of the operating details of the organization, their objective is to train 20 dogs at a time. Clearly there’s a huge need; in fact there’s so many veterans in need of service dogs that they can’t keep up. Until they can get into a larger facility they can’t reach that twenty-in-training goal.

MITTN Jade Chris GradShelter to Soldier calls San Diego County home, where 1.2 million active duty, veterans and families of veterans live. Of the active and veteran ranks, a vast number suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) due to their time in combat zones. Shelter to Soldier does not to treat the veterans—that’s left to the medical institutions. Graham’s approach focuses on preparing the dogs to perform care-giving functions that aid each veteran. He understands that dogs are non-judgmental and give unconditional love; the perfect candidates for the job.

After each dog has been trained and goes home with the veteran, the veteran can call Graham anytime with questions and give him an update on how they’re doing. Shelter to Soldier holds events and get-togethers for the veterans and dogs, as well as refresher courses and further training anytime a need arises.

MITTN Sandy & Tomas 2Does it work? Before he entered the program Tomas Mondares felt he was in a dark place, and just wanted to stay shut in by himself. Now with Sandy he feels so much better that they go out more often, enjoying life together. In fact, he claims that without Graham and Sandy, he would be in a much darker place—or maybe not here at all.

Chris Meyer looked into getting  a service dog from five other programs before settling on Shelter to Soldier. He found StS to be the only one that completely vetted each veteran and each dog’s capabilities to provide the best possible fit. As Chris continues in his rehabilitation, he says he wants to give back to Graham and do some volunteer work with the organization.

How did Graham Bloem decide on this path? Is he a veteran? Is he from a military family? Neither. He was born in South Africa, and immigrated to the US through Canada, later becoming a US citizen. He has never been in the military. He did, however, come to realize that he was really good at training dogs. With all the current and former military in the county having needs, his destiny was obvious.

Graham also runs West Coast K9, a professional dog training business to pay some bills, but the non-profit Shelter to Soldier operation is a labor of love and charity. The challenge to the Board of Directors is how to expand the operation to train more dogs, necessitating a larger facility.

Saving dogs, helping veterans, by someone who immigrated here—how’s that for goodness personified?

MITTN Jade

Tomas says that “family” is defined by love, not necessarily by blood. Using that criteria, then it is safe to say that Sandy is definitely family to Tomas, as Jade is to Chris. The unconditional love these family members give to their human counterparts is their own Goodness Principle.

You can learn more about Shelter to Soldier here.

A Million Pillowcases

It started as a simple idea and grew into a passion, a movement to make a difference one pillowcase at a time. In 2010 the magazine, American Patchwork & Quilting, issued a challenge to the quilting community: Make 1,000,000 pillowcases and donate them to charities in their local communities. If you know a quilter, then you know that quilters take challenges very seriously and boy did they take on this one.

Why a pillowcase? It seems pretty basic, right? It is, but to someone who just lost their home in a fire or to a teen moving from one foster home to another or to a child undergoing cancer care in a hospital surrounded by sterile white everything to a homeless veteran or to a woman seeking respite in a domestic violence shelter, a colorful pillowcase can mean the world. It can mean comfort. It means that someone cares.

The project took off and it’s still going strong. As of the 24th of March 2016 countless groups around the country have made and donated 663,684 pillowcases to their local charities (donations are reported and the magazine keeps a tally on their website). So who are the people who make and donate the pillowcases? They are individuals, groups, organizations and children. One group in Bloomingdale, Ohio, led by Mary Albaugh, illustrates the deep commitment these sewing volunteers make to the project.

In 2013 Mary lost her mother to accidental death in a nursing home. That was bad enough, then there were birth complications when her granddaughter was born. Little Karly Jean survived but it left Mary in a distressed state of mind. When her son told her to “get a life” she knew she needed to do something productive. She had heard about the pillowcase challenge and decided to start sewing. And she did. She sewed and sewed and sewed. Before long she had made 350 pillowcases; she donated them to Pillows of Hope for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. As much as she liked making the pillowcases she missed the camaraderie that comes with sewing in a group.  Then she did something she had never done before – she founded a ministry, called Amazing Grace Pillowcase and launched it on Facebook.

On a Friday the 13th she scheduled her first “sew-in” at a local training center. Despite horrible weather, construction in the parking lot that forced everyone to park far away, and difficulty finding the sewing room at the center, over 30 women showed up to sew. By the day’s end the group had made 137 pillowcases. Mary said it’s a prime example of “If you build it, they will come.”

Mary fondly calls the volunteers her “sewing angels” because they bring joy to others, one pillowcase at a time. This humble group has made and donated well over 5,500 pillowcases as of this writing. If you ask Mary, she will tell you that they don’t just make  pillowcases, they’re an act of love and a symbol of hope.

Then there are the kids, lots and lots of kids who have taken to this project like the proverbial bee to honey. In 2015 Mary began holding events for kids to sew pillowcases for sick children in hospitals. Kids like Girl Scouts, 4Hers, and children inspired to learn to sew, if they don’t already know how. Even little ones in kindergarten. Kids who jumped at the opportunity to do something to help a sick child. Kids like Mary’s granddaughter, Karly Jean Otto, who at five years old made her first pillowcase (see this cute photo).

And Amanda Boring, an incredibly generous child. After attending sew-a-thons for the 4H and Girl Scouts, Amanda was so inspired that she saved her own money, made from doing chores around the house. She bought patriotic fabric for Amazing Grace Pillowcase, instead of spending it on clothes for herself. And there are others like Owen and Tina, grandchildren of one of the sewing angels. I don’t know who gets more out of these acts of love, Mary, or the kids who relish the opportunity to help other children. The kids certainly understand the significance of their efforts.

One time after finishing two events Mary asked the group “What did you learn from this experience? What did you use to help make these pillowcases?” A shy little girl raised her hand and said, “We used our hearts.”

Mary is incredibly proud that the kids get it, that they understand how good it feels to give to someone in need, to give back. Yes, they get it and so do the adults. They sure know how to raise good kids in Ohio, they sure do.