Most high school graduates store congratulatory notes and photographs from friends and family among the pages of their senior yearbook. But memories of Gateway School graduates in the western Colorado ranching community of Gateway are hand-embroidered on quilts they can use throughout their lives, complete with messages and inspiration from the friends who hand-sew them.
Women from Wayside Chapel, the rural town’s only church, began in 1979 to make each high school graduate a quilt to be presented shortly before graduation at the baccalaureate ceremony. A pastor’s wife first suggested the idea.
This year, quilts were given to Gateway’s two seniors, but graduates have numbered as many as 11. Regardless of the number, each quilt is a testament to the enduring care of a small community of a few hundred people, where many residents trace family ties through multiple generations of cattle ranchers and uranium miners.
Just one road leads into Gateway: Colorado Highway 141, with two lanes twisting alongside a creek, through open range, past ranches, over the Dolores River, and between redrock canyon walls. But many roads lead out: college, marriage, and construction work among them.
Wherever students go, Aggie Wareham, 70, a rancher who organizes the quilting, believes the teenagers are better for having grown up in a town small enough to allow each child the kind of personal recognition the quilts give.
“They get more of a community feeling, a sense of belonging,” says Wareham, who is also a longtime 4-H leader and a former cook at Gateway School.
The school, with nearly 60 students enrolled in kindergarten through high school, has a small campus that still retains the closeness of an old-fashioned, one-room school.
Threads of inspiration
Preparation for the quilts starts early. Students select their fabrics in the fall when they begin their senior year. Five yards of material and a queen-sized sheet are cut and sewn to make 54 “friendship” blocks, each measuring 12 inches square. Seniors then send those blocks to family and friends for them to embroider messages, designs, and a Bible verse.
The center square is reserved for a special Bible verse selected by the student. Wareham always embroiders that one herself and puts it under an outline of the Wayside Chapel, which was built in 1953.
After the stitchers have had several months to embroider their squares, the newly decorated pieces of fabric are rounded up in the spring. Wareham sews—or pieces—squares together to form the quilt top and attaches the batting (soft filling) and backing. Other women pitch in to tie the quilts—sewing the three layers together with bits of yarn. That’s the finishing touch.
This year’s graduates Nia Soane, 17, and Brandy Lopez, who turned 18 this week, are close friends and participated in each other’s quilts.
Lopez’ quilt has a dark background punctuated with small, purple flowers. “It just looked pretty,” Lopez says of her choice. The center square features Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
“It’s just telling me that I’ve got the strength to make it through everything that life may throw my way,” Lopez says of her selected verse. “I can pretty much depend on Jesus to be there.”
For Soane’s quilt, Lopez embroidered a red rose, the class flower, with Psalm 100:1: Come before his presence singing. “She likes to sing a lot, so that’s why I picked that one,” Lopez says.
Soane’s grandmother selected the center verse for Soane’s quilt, which was to remain a surprise until the red, white, and black bandanna print quilt was presented. Red, Soane explains, is her favorite color. “I’ve had that color forever,” Soane says, because red also is the color of her July birthstone, the ruby.
Her grandmother, who lives with her family, also embroidered the square for Lopez, with a verse and purple rose to match the quilt’s colors.
The lone 2001 graduate, Dustin Michael Graf, 19, chose maroon fabric. Graf’s family has owned a cattle ranch in the Gateway area for 112 years, and he now is studying diesel technology at a Grand Junction vocational school, with plans to return to ranching in a few years.
For his center block, his mother helped him pick the biblical passage John 1:5: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it.
“When everything is going bad, if you keep your mind straightened out, you’ll make it through it,’’ Graf says, explaining why that verse resonated with him.
‘I remember the people’
The work spans generations. Quilter Melody Shetler, 43, learned her embroidery skills from her mother, who also worked on the quilts.
Freida Casto, 74, who often presents the finished quilts to the graduates, has a favorite verse. She often uses, Proverbs 15:1: A soft answer burneth away wrath.
The graduates learn from the handwork that goes into each quilt, says Holly Moores, 45, one of the Wayside Chapel quilters. Her daughters perfected their skills while making blocks. “I even improved over the years,’’ Moores says.
Moores’ sister-in-law, Linda Moores, 45, agrees. “My first one, I was terrified. I was so worried that it was going to look so bad.” Her three children each received quilts when they graduated. Linda Moores’ daughter, Michelle Gillilan, a 1998 graduate, still has her Southwestern-print graduation quilt on her bed.
“Actually, I use mine every day,” says Gillilan, who received her associate’s degree, married, and works as an escrow officer in Grand Junction, about 40 miles away.
“Every night when I go to sleep, I remember the people,” Gillilan says of those who contributed to her quilt. Those people include a great-grandmother and two great-aunts who now are dead.
“Aggie, especially, put a tremendous amount of energy into it,” Gillilan says fondly of Wareham, who was her Sunday school teacher.
Although Gillilan has moved away, she makes blocks for graduates each year. “I always make sure I put the entire verse, because I think that’s important,” she says. “And I always put my whole name.”
She recalls some unsigned squares on her quilt. Gillilan later found out who made them and embroidered their names to the squares herself so she always would remember the people who took the time to remember her.
That’s what Wareham had in mind—the quilts serving as reminders of an important time and important people in the graduates’ lives. “It’s a lot more personal than a (year)book,” she says.
Thanks to the Gateway quilters, those memories will always wrap the graduates in love and warmth.