Kingston Whig Standard by Bev Chambers 15 May 2014
I heard the girls laughing as they ran down the stairs of the Wally Elmer Neighbourhood Centre in north Kingston. Excitedly they raced into the room and placed themselves around the table. Spread out before them were pieces of fabric cut into 12 by 12 inch squares in various stages of completion. They chattered with the senior volunteers about their project oblivious to the weathered chairs and paint chipped walls.
The children, aged 6-14, are in the after school life skills and mentoring program at Girls Inc Limestone. This program, which inspires girls to be “strong, smart and bold”, is offered at no cost to students three times a week. Twice a month they work on a quilt depicting their dreams. Volunteers from the intergenerational program Friendship Blooms are teaching the young women the skills of designing the quilt blocks.
A “quilt” refers to any covering in which layers of material are stitched together for warmth and decoration. According to Diana Lodge, in her book Traditional Needle Arts Quilting, quilts were first sewn in Canada in the late eighteenth century although they date back to Roman times. At one time quilts were exclusively for the rich and provided a statement about the owner’s wealth. With the industrial revolution fabric became both more affordable and available. Quilts were created from leftover scraps from sewing projects and worn clothing, or by cloth purchased specifically for the quilt. Block quilting, or smaller units sewn together, became more popular when a variety of fabrics were manufactured. Women expressed themselves by using different patterns, colours and symbols. Quilting was an important part of a women’s education, and women gathered socially at quilting bees.
The fabric for the dream quilt was donated by my mother, who at 84 admonished me to ensure the material “went to some seniors who could sew”. My mother was an avid sewer in her younger years. When she was 14 she taught herself how to operate a treadle sewing machine which her father purchased second hand from the paper man. My parents were raised in West Yorkshire, England and many generations of my family worked in the textile industry. The area was famous for shoddy cloth or remanufactured wool from old rags ground down and spun into thick thread. The yarn was rewoven into blankets, carpets and uniforms. Regrettably I did not inherit my mother’s fondness for sewing. At best I am reluctant with needle and thread, procrastinating months to stitch buttons or hem pants.
I took my mother’s directive seriously and contacted Christine Bell, a community development worker at the Kingston Community Health Centres. I was delighted to hear of the Friendship Blooms program where seniors share their knowledge, skills and wisdom by engaging children and youth. In turn the children help reduce the social isolation that seniors may experience and offer friendship and fun. A new partnership between the seniors and Girls Inc Limestone was established in autumn and the concept of the dream quilt was generated.
Girls Inc after school program is open to girls in the Limestone, Algonquin Lakeshore and Hastings/Prince Edward County school boards. If students are within a 15 minute walk from the Wally Elmer arena such as those attending Rideau Heights Public, J.G. Simcoe Public, and Holy Family Catholic Schools they will be escorted to and from the program.
I spoke with Susan O’Dell and Tammy Didychuk from Girls Inc Limestone. Both women were impassioned about their community service agency, which promotes a balanced life style within a safe environment and is funded by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. The program encourages effective communication and has zero tolerance for bullying. Tammy, gesticulating excitedly, spoke fervently about a few of the other programs offered such as self defense, and “friendly peersuasion” which teaches girls to handle peer pressure. These are a few of the life changing courses that may be offered at elementary or secondary schools.
Sue, a retired school board employee, works in the after school program. Eyes sparkling and face wreathed in a smile, Sue spoke earnestly about the quilt project. Emphasis was not on the end product, rather the journey to get there.
Every quilt tells a story. The dream quilt blocks represent the voices and vision of the young girls. They first expressed their dream by drawing it. Transferring the design to the quilt block was challenging. Some drawings were quite elaborate and a simplified pattern portraying the original concept was sought from a variety of resources.
I was invited to attend a creative session with the participants. The older women explained how to trace the patterns, and transfer the felt cutouts to the fabric squares and the girls listened attentively. The room buzzed with energy as the girls concentrated, tongues between teeth and shoulders hunched over tables stained with paint from previous projects. Brightly coloured scenes of farms, fashions, and a law office representing dreams came to life on the fabric.
I asked several girls about their dream. Rhailynne envisioned becoming a fire fighter in a fire truck coming to a burning house to save people.
Hayden dreamed of being a farmer with lots of horses, cows, pigs, dogs and sheep. She read a lot of books about farms and although had never visited one had “been on pony rides” and told me “one of my friends lives on a farm”.
A cake and cookie featured on Cheyenne’s square depicting a baker while Madison wished to be a school bus monitor like her mom. Sam also drew a farm and was keen to help others. Cassie expressed a desire to design any kind of clothing and Celiena aspired to be an artist. Alexis drew about her family.
I was able to converse with Sandra Miller, an enthusiastic volunteer with a winsome smile, who has been donating time and energy with Friendship Blooms for numerous years. She was impressed with how respectful the youngsters from Girls Inc were, and how they communicated with the seniors. Sandra shared that volunteering “gets me out to meet new people, and learn about the community” and “its amazing what you learn from other people.”
I also met Nancy Spencer, who patiently helped the girls iron adhesive on to the felt.
Joan Little, another Friendship Blooms volunteer, is reputed to be a beautiful quilter. I was told her artistic creations will be treasured for generations. There were several volunteers I did not meet, including exchange students from Bolivia in the Canada World Youth Program.
The dream quilt is being assembled and stitched by Shakila Anver, a young volunteer from Immigrant Services for Kingston and Area (ISKA) who is passionate about quilting. She learnt about the craft initially in Sri Lanka, her country of origin. Shakila shared that watching You Tube videos and receiving advice from volunteers at the Sewing Club at ISKA enhanced her skills.
The quilt is a work in progress and a square representing Friendship Blooms has been added. The finished product will hang in the Girls Inc space at the Wally Elmer Arena where the children can reflect on their visualized dreams over the years.
Although the girl’s hopes may change over time, the quilt will continue to symbolize smart, strong and bold women learning and working together in the fabric of our community.