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An Act of Giving: From One Generation to Another

101-year-old Eva shows off a quilt she helped make through Project Linus.New Glarus, Wisconsin - Seated around a large table were five residents of the New Glarus Home, hunched over the work before them. Each was coloring a 10-inch square of ivory muslin on which a design had been traced. Most had arthritic hands and failing eyesight. The ladies' ages were 87, 90, 98, 100 and 101.

When the squares had been colored, they would be ironed to heat-set the colors and to remove the wax from the crayons. The squares would then be sewn together into a small quilt top, machine quilted, and given to another group of senior ladies, residents of the nearby Glarner Lodge, to hand sew the quilt bindings. The finished quilt, which took only about two weeks from start to finish to make, would then be added to a short stack of other quilts, all destined for children at area hospitals.

The group behind this quilt-giving idea, the quilter designing and making the quilts at the New Glarus Home, and the ladies decorating the quilt squares are each a story in itself.

About Project Linus

But first, the group that got this effort started. It is Project Linus. We all remember Linus from Charlie Brown cartoon days. Linus was the one who always carried his blanket with him and held it close for comfort. Project Linus reaches out to children faced with a serious illness or trauma, offering them comfort and security in the form of a handmade blanket or quilt. Founded in 1995, Project Linus is a national non-profit organization with 368 chapters across the country. Its nearly 60,000 volunteers have donated a handmade blanket or quilt to more than 5 million children.

Project Linus has a very active chapter in Madison. They make donations once a month of approximately 450 to 500 handmade blankets and quilts. Most go to American Family Children's Hospital at UW Hospital and Clinics. Others go to childrens' wings at St. Mary's and Meriter hospitals. Other recipients include the Ronald McDonald House, the Monroe Clinic and Stoughton Hospital.

Of the donated items, most are fleece blankets, which are less expensive and easier to assemble than quilts. Some are even tiny blankets made especially for isolets at neonatal intensive care units. Since its start in 1998, the Madison area chapter of Project Linus has donated 55,000 blankets and quilts to area hospitals.

Local Quilter Takes the Lead

Project Linus got its foothold in the Belleville-New Glarus area 12 years ago.

Belleville resident Marilyn Mellenberger remembers seeing signs at Patches and Petals, a quilt store in town, asking for volunteers to quilt tops for Project Linus. An avid quilter, Marilyn started doing this quilting. The idea of making quilts to give to sick children really appealed to her. When she finished quilting tops made by others, she wanted to keep going and do more. She was retired by then and had time on her hands. So, in 2003, she started making quilt tops of her own and complete quilts for Project Linus. Since then, she has never stopped.

Project Linus unites many volunteers. Some make quilts or blankets. Others sew silk labels on each item saying "Made by loving hands for Project Linus." In addition, a paper tag is added to each quilt giving each quilter's first name and city of residence and a contact for the Madison area chapter.

Connie Roden, a volunteer labeler since 2000, describes Marilyn's work. "I love it when I get quilts made by Marilyn. They are always so unique. Her quilts have wonderful patterns and wonderful themes. She has such an eye for color and design. All of the fabrics selected for backgrounds fit perfectly with the theme of the quilt. She has a gift for that." Anne Urso, former Coordinator for the Madison area chapter, adds her own description of Marilyn's quilts: "They were never just slapped together. Many involved applique and intricate stitching - all beautiful handwork. They were more than just blankets; they were works of art."

In January of 2014, arthritis required Marilyn to move into the New Glarus Home, a nursing home in New Glarus. Initially in a double occupancy room, she wondered if she would have to give up her love of and work on quilting for Project Linus.

By a stroke of fortune, a private room soon opened up. And by another stroke of good fortunate, that room was at the end of a dead-end hallway. Marilyn moved in. Very conscientious about safety issues, plans were made for ways in which Marilyn could keep a sewing machine in her room, as well as a small ironing board. The room's isolation with respect to not being near a high-traffic area helped make this possible.

Also assisting the setup were Marilyn's longtime quilt helpers and facilitators, her sister and brother-in-law, Joyce and Dick Lapp of Rockford, Ill. They brought a tiny subset of Marilyn's quilting equipment to the Home, and helped her set it up in her room. They also packed and moved Marilyn's large collection of fabrics, batting, patterns, thread, etc., into totes, which they put into a rented storage locker in Belleville to keep them nearby. Because space in Marilyn's room is limited, Joyce and Dick ferry materials to her whenever she needs them.

With this all set up, Marilyn was once again in business making quilts for Project Linus. Some work she would do in her room, and other work she would take to a large table in a nearby common area. This began to attract the interest of other residents who would walk or wheel down to watch what she was doing.

Nursing Home Residents Help Out

One lady in particular came down often, usually alone. Marilyn watched her friend's interest and finally asked if she would like to do something. The lady nodded. So Marilyn started her on rolling up balls of quilt binding strips that she had sewn together. She was joined by others who also wanted something to do.

This gave Marilyn the idea of inviting the ladies to decorate their own squares. She wanted to get them busy using their hands. With Joyce's help, bringing Marilyn her portable light table from the storage locker, Marilyn traced simple designs from coloring books, and soon the ladies started coloring.

How To Support Project Linus Quilting at the New Glarus Home
The quilting project at the New Glarus Home is not only being led by one resident, Marilyn Mellenberger, but also all costs for it - for fabric, batting, thread and crayons - are being paid by her personally. Since starting making quilts for Project Linus in 2003, Marilyn has kept an annual tally of how many she has made and donated. The total is a staggering 2,518 quilts!

And now, this work has become "an activity" at the New Glarus Home and is bringing pleasure to other residents who are helping to decorate their own squares for Project Linus quilts.

If you would like to support this work and contribute to the cost of quilt materials, donations can be made to the New Glarus Home. Please specify "for Project Linus" in the memo field of any check. Send to Sarah Dittmer, Activities Director, New Glarus Home, 600 Second Ave., New Glarus, WI 53574. And thank you for helping Project Linus bring comfort to children!

Each colored her square in her own way. Everyone was very careful to stay within lines. Some pressed lightly, and others hard. Some left backgrounds blank, and others colored it, too.

The quilt square decorating became quite a project. A nonverbal woman came to the table and asked questions, astonishing staff who said she rarely spoke. Another woman who rarely left her own wing because she was afraid of not finding her way back to her room came to color. One resident's husband joined his wife, and they colored several squares together. When everyone had finished their square, Marilyn wrote each decorator's first name and age on the square.

As the decorators began enjoying their regular coloring activity, they would come down to Marilyn's room, sometimes very early in the morning, asking "Is there any work to do?" At first, if no squares were ready to color, Marilyn would just say "Sorry, not today."

But this bothered her because she saw how much her friends wanted something to do. So she would drop whatever quilt she was working on, and would trace designs on more squares that could be colored.

Once the quilts were finished, they were hung in a common area, and Marilyn made sure each decorator saw the quilt and could find her square or squares. She remembers the first time she brought the oldest quilter, Eva Zweifel, to see the square she had colored. She wheeled Eva up close and pointed out her square. Eva leaned over and read out loud, "Eva 101." With a big smile, Eva said proudly, "That's me!" then she said, "And just think, some little girl or boy is going to get to sleep under that quilt."

Helen Goebli, 98, is one of Marilyn's most faithful coloring helpers. Lots of mornings, she comes on her own from her wing to Marilyn's, and when Marilyn asks her if she wants to color, Helen's reply is always "Might as well, don't you think?"

Marilyn, a modest lady whom it is hard to credit or praise, smiles quietly herself when discussing this quilting work. She is very happy that so many residents have shown an interest in decorating a quilt square. "Residents now have yet another activity to keep their hands and minds active," Marilyn says. "Their working on the Project Linus quilts gives them a renewed feeling of self-worth, knowing that they are doing something to help someone else."

Since moving into the Home in January, Marilyn has made 162 quilts for Project Linus. Her goal for the year is 350. A staffer at the Home once asked Marilyn, "Don't you ever get tired of doing this?" "No," Marilyn answered, "I don't. When one quilt is done, I have ideas for others I want to do. If I wake up at night and can't sleep, I start planning quilts. I guess this is my legacy."

Yes, it is, and now a whole group of women are helping her continue this project. In addition, her work has inspired others to do the same. Aides at the Home are looking for residents who live on another floor and might like to color squares. A couple of ladies from Marilyn's church do handstitching on the bindings and some blanket stitching by hand. Recently, some of Marilyn's cousins have begun helping also.

Even kids are getting involved. Children visiting weekly from the New Glarus Schools became interested in Marilyn's work and happened to spot an old sewing machine set out at the curb on trash day. They stopped, picked up the machine, helped clean it up, and now they and their teacher are sewing strips together for quilt tops for Project Linus.

What started as one person working alone, is now a group. And even more lovely handmade quilts are on their way to children in need, to cheer them up and keep them warm.

Residents of the New Glarus Home display some of the quilts they have made and donated to area hospitals.
Residents of the New Glarus Home display some of the quilts they have made and donated to area hospitals, including American Family Children's Hospital.

This article originally appeared in the Post Messenger Recorder, New Glarus. Reprinted with permission. Photos by Sue Moen.


Date Published: 07/25/2014

News tag(s):  child life