My family and I live very comfortable lives. We never have to question where money for food, shelter, or clothing will come from, yet nearly 1.3 billion people worldwide live in extreme poverty. They often go to bed hungry, dirty, unclothed and unprotected from the elements. And while I won’t be able to impact most of those 1.3 billion people’s lives, I can impact some of them. That’s my simple goal.
If you begin with one small step, eventually you will have walked miles.
If each of us reached out in some way to help others, the world would be a kinder, better place, don’t you think? Am I being idealistic? Perhaps. Let’s face it though, most of us have the means to help at least in some small way. WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?). I love that phrase, not because I’m ultra-religious, which I’m not in any way, but rather because it asks us to navigate our actions, as often as we can, based on what an unfailingly kind and caring soul might have done. And that just feels right to me.
One of my first experiences with giving back to folks who are in dire need of help started with something as simple as making homemade sleeping bags. I read about the idea online and thought, “We can make this happen right here and right now.”
And so we did.
Every Friday for three and a half years, a gaggle of wonderful women plopped themselves down on my living room floor and repurposed donated sheets, blankets, material swatches and men’s ties into sleeping bag quilts for Chicago’s homeless. My home was a veritable quilt factory for years on end with a dozen or so giant black garbage bags full of fabric, toiletries, and clothing jammed in the coat closet and tucked around the corner out of view from the front door. Had unexpected guests stepped beyond the safe zone of the foyer, they would have thought we were advanced hoarders. This project, if done in your home, can completely swallow up your living room. Just ask my husband. He’ll readily agree. I have a very accommodating husband. (He made me write that.) (Not really.)
Anyway, we were participating in a program called “Ugly Quilting”*, whose name permits the quilt creators to shift their sewing focus from aesthetics to functionality; the quilts don’t need to be perfect or even marginally attractive, they just need to serve as protection from the elements. As a matter of fact, if they are beautiful or brand new, chances are that much greater that they’ll be sold for money to buy drugs or alcohol, or stolen. Yep. You read that right. Some people even steal from the homeless. AHEM, moving on . . . For most of the quilt recipients, it’s the only thing that forms a barrier between them and the pavement. Between them and the rain, the wind, and the cold. In essence, these bedrolls are their temporary homes.
Here’s an Ugly Quilt that has been sewn, stuffed with a bag of toiletries and clothing, and is ready to roll up and secure with the attached ties. (You have to admit, it does a fine job of living up to its name!)
The photo below shows a handful of my Lovely Ugly Quilter friends (LUQs) and a few of our final products. You may see mismatched sleeping bags in the photo, but I see my old family room curtains, material for a dress I never got around to sewing, and half a dozen fashion-challenged ties I confiscated from my husband’s side of the closet that were happy to lend a hand.
The smaller quilts actually go to displaced kids who live in vehicles or homeless shelters. Does that not just break your heart? My son, Spencer, often donated his stuffed animals to include in the kid quilts.
Once we completed the quilts, we stuffed each with a bag of toiletries, hand and foot warmers, gloves, a hat, socks, a t-shirt, and sweats and then rolled the bag into an easy-to-carry bundle. My husband and boys would help me load the bedrolls into the back of my SUV and haul them down to a group in Lombard called the “Chicago Homeless Sandwich Run”.
Jim and Virginia Proffitt founded this organization years ago. I think it’s safe to say that they were not wealthy people. Yet despite that fact, they spent every weekend for the last 20+ years preparing and delivering 1,000 sack lunches to homeless vets in the city, often paying for many of the supplies out of their own pockets. The only time they would take off each year was during Veteran’s Day weekend so that Jim, an ex-marine, could visit the Viet Nam Veteran’s Memorial in DC. Their story is simply humbling. Our quilts were lucky enough to tag along with Jim in the old Viet Now truck he drove downtown on Sundays, and were handed out, as needed, throughout the day.
In addition to his tireless service to those in need, Jim fought leukemia for years. Just a moment ago, I received the news that Jim passed on last month, and I’m devastated. It’s such a loss to so many. We need more folks like Jim in this world of ours, not fewer. I used to lay in bed on a winter’s night listening to the wind howl, and feel somewhat comforted by the fact that, come morning, homeless vets would be greeted by Jim’s smile, a steaming cup of coffee, a sack lunch, a change of clothes, and perhaps one of our quilts. But now, if not Jim, who?
A load of quilts ready for delivery. And our dog, Tia, who believes herself to be a bedroll.
Here’s a link to a blog post from one of Jim’s veteran friends that explains more about Jim’s life, and how he was laid to rest. RIP, Jim.
Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, so while it’s important to honor vets everyday, it’s especially important now. Here are some facts you should know and chew on and try really hard to stomach. According to a study from HUD, “On a single night in January 2013, there were 610,042 people experiencing homelessness in the United States, including 394,698 people who were homeless in sheltered locations and 215,344 people who were living in unsheltered locations.” Almost 60,000, or nearly 10%, of those homeless people were veterans. They served in the military to safeguard our freedom, and, then, due to PTSD, alcoholism, drug addiction, or physical handicaps, many of which were a by-product of their service, have found themselves without a home.
How does such a thing happen? How can the strongest nation in the world, one that tops the list of military expenditures, not take care of its former freedom fighters? It’s beyond my comprehension. How can we expect vets to risk their lives and then simply discard them when they arrive back home, oftentimes broken? What are your thoughts?