Sept. 11 Prompts Quilts of Compassion

Hometown Heroes, People
on March 17, 2002

Like thousands of Americans, Betty Nielsen was glued to her television set Sept. 11, wishing she could do something for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

But as a farmer’s wife hundreds of miles from Ground Zero, Nielsen wasn’t sure how she could help. So she turned to a comforting craft—quilting—and galvanized her friends and neighbors in Varina, Iowa, (pop. 90) to make and collect thousands of heartwarming blankets.

“I kept thinking, ‘These poor families, what can I do?” Nielsen recalls. “Well, I know how to do one thing—I can sew a quilt.”

“When we make these quilts, we put everything into it,” she adds. “I put all my love into it. And when I give it to someone, that’s what I’m giving them—I’m giving them my love in that quilt. When they wrap it around themselves, there’s just so much warmth and comfort.”

She began by meeting her friend, Pat Archer, to make blocks for a star quilt, gathering strength as she sewed the patriotic red, white, and blue fabric. Then they asked neighbors if they wanted to join in.

From there, the project grew to immense proportions, as Nielsen and Archer set out to create or collect 4,000 quilts—enough to give one to each victim’s family.

“When she called me, she said, ‘We’re going to make a quilt,’” Archer recalls. “The next time it was two quilts, the next time it was 4,000.”

The Freedom Quilts project showed why Varina calls itself “The Little Town with the Big Heart.” In the short, busy months before Christmas, Nielsen and her neighbors sewed and gathered more than 1,500 quilts and delivered them to New York City.

It wasn’t an easy task. In December, the basement of Varina’s St. Columbkille Catholic Church looked like a sweatshop. In one corner, two women sat at sewing machines while a third hunched over an iron. A dozen others stood at waist-high wooden frames, chatting while they stitched padding onto each colorful quilt. Some of the local men pitched in to tie knots.

In the middle, Nielsen, a petite bundle of energy, sorted through a pile of quilts almost as high as her head. Most days, she arrived at the church at 9 a.m. and left 12 hours later, only to stay up well past midnight stitching quilt blocks and e-mailing supporters.

“She just inspires us,” says Beulah Emming, a volunteer who went to New York City along with Nielsen, her husband, and fellow organizer Pat Archer. “We do a lot of things together in our small community, but this got much bigger than what Betty planned.”

In those few short months, the Varina quilters made more than 150 quilts. The rest came from quilt makers across the country. One even came in the mail from Guatemala.

But even while the quilts piled up, Nielsen wasn’t sure how to get them delivered. The answer came when she was invited to hand them out at a winter festival hosted by the city of New York for victims’ families and Wal-Mart offered a truck to transport them.

“This, to me, is worth more than a million dollars,” says Eileen Mosca, a New York police officer who picked up one of the Varina quilts because it reminded her of her sister, Kathleen Casey, who was killed in the World Trade Center collapse. Now she sleeps with it every night.

Mosca adds that she was moved to tears when she realized hundreds of people at the festival were skipping the donated toys and leaving with just American flags—and Nielsen’s quilts.

“She does not realize what she has done,” Mosca says. “She does not realize the magnitude of how she’s touched people.”