Quilts Soothe Children Dealing with Trauma
February 8, 2024
By John Flowers
A UKRAINIAN INFANT enjoys a quilt generated by volunteers involved in the Peacemaker Quilt Project. The project provides homemade quilts to children going through difficult times, ranging from war to foster care. Photo courtesy of Joshin Byrnes
MIDDLEBURY — In traditional Zen, a newly minted monastic follower or a priest must sew their own robes by hand, noted Joshin Byrnes, a Zen priest and teacher at Cornwall’s Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community.
“It’s thousands of stitches,” said Byrnes, who’s been through the painstaking process himself.
In ancient times, these robes were essentially a patchwork of discarded pieces of cloth retrieved from waste heaps, having been burned by fire, chewed by oxen, gnawed by mice, or even worn by the dead.
“We maintain something of that in our own practice,” Byrnes said of his Zen community. “We collect cloth that’s been discarded or given to us by others, and we sew them together into our temple robes.”
Given this tradition of breathing new life into unwanted items, it seemed fitting that BreadLoaf Mountain Zen Community, or BLMZ, would seek to collect fabric scraps to make beautiful, utilitarian quilts for children living through trying circumstances, ranging from foster care to war.
Thus was born the Peacemaker Quilt Project, which has produced around 80 quilts thus far thanks to community generosity and volunteer labor. It has involved BLMZ members, as well as crafty folks from throughout the county.
JOSHIN BYRNES, A member of the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community, displays one of several quilts made through the Peacemaker Quilt Project. The project, fueled by donated fabric and labor, has generated around 80 quilts that will be given tochildren coping with traumatic circumstances. Independent photo/John Flowers
It all started in 2021, during the height of the COVID pandemic.
“Everybody was quarantined and isolated,” Byrnes said. “We were meeting online, but people wanted a social-action project.”
Some brainstorming led to the idea of fashioning individual, 18-inch-square blocks of fabric — or entire quilt tops — to form the basics of “peacemaker” quilts. While not a panacea for kids suffering through the horrors of war or the anguish of domestic strife, the quilts are meant to epitomize friendship and a soothing reminder that the children were not alone, BLMZ members believed.
An invitation to participate in the peacemaker quilt project went out in the BLMZ newsletter. Through word of mouth, the news went out to folks throughout the U.S., Europe and Canada who became invested in the idea and who sent along fabric, quilt blocks and other forms of support.
“It grew,” Byrnes said of the effort.
It’s a project that saw Byrnes become a quilting enthusiast himself. This led him to shop at area fabric stores and get advice from the county’s tight-knit coalition of quilters. It wasn’t long before these talented craftspeople lent their talents to the project. Among them: The Milk and Honey Quilt Guild, Eastview at Middlebury resident Angelica Brumbaugh, and Patricia Freed-Thall.
Other supporters included Ginni Stern, who took two baby quilts to Krakow, Poland, for Ukrainian refugee moms; and Cheryl Gasperetti of Bennington County Open Arms, a volunteer groupthat supports and sponsors Afghan refugees who are resettling in Vermont.
Middlebury resident Dorothy Mammen is a member of The Milk and Honey Quilt Guild. She recalled meeting Byrnes at the guild’s October 2021 quilt show.
Byrnes explained the peacemaker project, whereupon Mammen advised him to collect half-square triangle blocks for the future quilts.
“It’s a very versatile block that you can use to make any number of designs. I wrote him up directions on how to make a quilt with half-square triangles.”
Byrnes tweaked the directions a little and sent them out to his budding legion of peacemaker quilters.
“Word spread throughout the community and all sorts of people started getting involved,” he said.
Milk and Honey’s involvement quickly grew from advisory to hands-on. Guild members Joyce Dicianna and Sandra Bonomo organized two separate “sit-and-sew” sessions at which around a dozen people cranked out a bunch of quilt tops using the piles of donated fabric blocks.
The volunteer quilters found the process highly rewarding.
“It is truly a joy when an activity you love doing can result in something useful to others,” said Mammen, who noted the guild performs several service projects each year. One of the guild’s top beneficiaries are clients of Elderly Services Inc.’s Project Independence senior daycare program. The guild routinely makes adult bibs, walker bags, shoe bags and other items for attendees.
“Anyone can enjoy a quilt,” Mammen said. “And it feels really good to see them out there and being used.”
It should be noted a stitched top does not a full quilt make. The top needs batting and a back before it achieves full quilt status. “Batting” is the layer of material between the quilt top and its backing that gives it weight and warmth.
The final assembly process requires additional labor and supplies that goes beyond what BLMZ wants to ask from volunteers. Byrnes estimates it costs around $108 to prepare a quilt for a child, and donors are being sought to “adopt” a quilt for a child. He said 100% of each donation will go directly to completing the quilt and getting it to a child. On Wednesday, Feb. 14, all the finished quilts will be on display, and ready for adoption, at the Gather space at 48 Merchants Row in Middlebury. Quilts can be adopted in person at the show or through tinyurl.com/45d34n9m. A representative from the Vermont Department for Children & Families will be present on Feb. 14 to receive the first batch of quilts for local foster children.
THE MILK AND Honey Quilt Guild held “sit-and-sew” sessions where members cranked out a bunch of quilt tops using the piles of donated fabric blocks.
Photo courtesy of Joshin Byrnes
Feb. 14 also coincides with the two-year anniversary of the Gather space, which offers a free, warm spot for people needing food, a restroom, a place to do laundry and some organized activities.
Byrnes said the Peacemaker Quilt Project will be an ongoing effort of BLMZ.
“I think it’s important for people to know they’re cared for, even if it’s by people who might be unseen,” he said. “It lets people know there’s a network of caring individuals who are interested in their wellbeing, that we’re connected somehow. I think this gives people a sense that they’re going to be OK. To receive something that’s been caringly and lovingly made with people’s hands and given freely, reminds people that there’s something bigger.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.