Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
Nurses and other staff at Johnson City Medical Center could find no way to calm a highly upset patient. Unquestionably traumatic for the patient, the situation was beginning to stress out the staff, too – until one of them recalled the handmade teddy bears that are given out to comfort children at the pediatric emergency room.
“They said she just cuddled that bear up and got so nice,” Sue McCall remembers fondly. The small, soft fleece bear had come from the Upper Room Quilters of Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church, of which McCall is the founder. She has several stories about the difference the group – about 16 strong – has made in the lives of Niswonger Children’s Hospital patients and others over more than a decade.
It’s a cold, drizzly Monday outside the church. Inside, colorful bolts of cloth line one wall of a windowless room, colorful spools of thread another. At various tables, McCall and six others – Debby Bennett, Linda Cole, Joanne Deakins, Norma Dean Holt, Emma Scott and Cora Young – operate sewing machines, hand-thread quilt tops and busy themselves with other tasks. Laughter and talk are not in short supply.
The quilters have picked up in 2015 where they ended 2014: lifting one another in fellowship while using their gifts to minister to sick children and others in need. Last year, they provided 420 colorful children’s quilts to Niswonger, where they are left on the beds of patients before they return from surgery. Another 198 teddy bears went to the children’s emergency department, and 141 “frogs” – small, soft head and neck braces – were given to Niswonger’s neonatal intensive care unit.
The group also gave 51 full-sized quilts to the Melting Pot ministry at Munsey United Methodist, along with various other smaller-scale gifts.
It all started in 2001, not long after McCall’s husband died. The church had a senior group that met occasionally, and it also had no small number of widows.
“I thought, well why don’t we have something where we get together and not sit at home during the day, so we started to do crafts,” McCall says. “It took off, and we went from crafts to quilting.”
Eventually, a member saw an article about someone donating a few quilts to what was then the JCMC Children’s Hospital. “I talked to Ann Lewis, who was head of volunteers at the time, and we started making quilts for them,” McCall says. Now, she says, “when the quilts start getting low over there, we hear from them.”
That’s because those small squares of fabric – with their soft, comforting fleece on one side and colorful, child-friendly patterns on the other – make a big difference during a difficult time in families’ lives.
“We put them on the beds in the surgical suites,” says Niswonger’s Manager of Volunteers and Patient Relations Jackie O’Sullivan. “It takes that sterile look off the bed so when that child returns to the room they’re not scared. The soft fleece on the inside of the blanket and the familiar characters on the outside (the ladies have done countless “Frozen” blankets this year) give them comfort. And they get to take them home with them.”
O’Sullivan has worked with the quilters for more than seven years, visiting them at their craft several times (they work Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, 1-4).
Sulphur Springs Minister Lauri Jo Cranford drops into the quilting room and the ladies gather around her like moths to a flame, complimenting her on yesterday’s sermon. Cranford asks McCall whether she caught North Carolina State’s upset of the then-unbeaten Duke Blue Devils after church, and McCall lights up.
Cranford says the group may be grounded in a love of quilting, but its influence reverberates beyond the physical gifts members provide. They have reached out to some of the newer widows in the church and brought them into the fellowship.
“It’s a very talented group, and if you don’t have a job when you walk in they will find something for you to do,” Cranford said. “But all that they do is without expectation of anything in return. It’s a great outreach and reminder of who we are to be as a church.”
McCall, who says the quilters make enough through occasional quilt sales and other donations to pay for their materials, puts it this way: “We’ll listen to each other’s troubles for awhile.
“We laugh together, we cry together, we pray together and we fuss.”
They don’t pray only for each other. Cranford says the quilters have told her of a particular knot in each quilt that acts as a sort of stabilizer for the blanket. The ladies, she says, pray over that knot and for the lives of the families whose children will receive each quilt, or the men and women, often down and out, who accept them at the Melting Pot.
“The people who get these may not realize it, but they’ve been prayed for,” Cranford says.