Sewing Quilts for Cancer Patients

Hometown Heroes, People
on December 23, 2001

The quilts are patched together with scraps of donated fabric and the hands of volunteers. They’re not always beautiful, but they are warm—that’s all that matters to Barb Johnston, co-founder of Quilts 4 Cancer.

“A quilt will not cure, but it will warm the body, heart, and soul,” she says.

Johnston and her husband, Jim, founded Quilts 4 Cancer just after they moved to Pahrump, Nev., (pop. 24,631) from New York nearly two and a half years ago, after Jim took early retirement from General Motors. Since then, the group has made and distributed more than 600 “comfort quilts” to cancer patients. The last 100 were smaller (35-by-45 inches) quilts donated to youngsters, ranging in age from infant to 21, with the help of the national Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation—a national organization dedicated to childhood cancer awareness.

“Most of the time the people are just overwhelmed that a stranger cared about them,” Johnston says. “They are touched to have this thing that was made from someone’s caring heart. It’s a very personal gift.”

It’s also a functional one. Chemotherapy often leaves patients feeling tired, sick, and cold, Johnston says. “It’s ice water in your veins. It can be 120 degrees outside, and you are freezing.”

Johnston should know. She underwent dozens of chemotherapy treatments when she battled—and beat—cancer in both breasts 17 years ago. Her personal stake in Quilts 4 Cancer runs even deeper. The organization grew from a promise she made to her mother, who died of cancer while Johnston was being treated for hers.

Johnston credits her own survival to early detection and treatment and is certified in breast self-examination training, having taught the life-saving skill in New York’s high schools and women’s prisons.

Recipients of the quilts, as one would expect, are extremely grateful.

Pahrump resident Vicki Roberts, 49, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year. She received a 4-by-6-foot hunter green and burgundy quilt and took it with her when she went to Las Vegas for chemotherapy treatments, using it in the car and at the clinic to keep her warm.

“It just made a small town seem that much tighter knit,” Roberts says. “It was nice to know there are people out there who are willing to do something like this for you, and they don’t even know you.”

Barbara Cleveland and her husband, David, run a real estate business and sold the Johnstons their home when they moved to Pahrump. Cleveland’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May of this year, and Barb hand-delivered a “beautiful” quilt with a dog pattern to the dying woman in July.

“It meant a lot to my mother,” Cleveland says. “Barb’s whole life is service to people. There’s nothing else. She just touched my heart. How could she not?”

Roughly six to eight hours goes into the making of each quilt, not including the time it takes to gather donated or discounted materials and prepare them for use. “We’re always in need of fabric,” Johnston says, whose nonprofit Quilts 4 Cancer survives on donations of fabric and money from residents and businesses in Pahrump and Las Vegas. The cash donations are used to buy fabric and other quilting materials from fabric distributors around the country.

Most of the work is done by a core group of 20 volunteers. The women get together once a month for group sessions referred to as “caring bees.” Johnston receives no money from the endeavor, nor does anyone else—it is all volunteer. The scraps of donated fabric are matched as closely as possible, but for the most part, volunteers produce what are known as “crazy quilts.” Johnston freely admits the quilts aren’t going to win any beauty contests.

“They’re not going to go into a museum,” she says. “They aren’t meant to. These are giant get-well cards. They are hugs.”