N.D. Grandmothers Craft Quilts for Ukraine Orphans

Halverson Just, Carol. "N.D. Grandmothers Craft Quilts for Ukraine Orphans." North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine 46, no. 10: 24-25 April 2000.


It's hard to believe at the dawn of a new century that some children in this world go to bed at night without warm bedclothes. That will change for children in Odessa, Ukraine, if North Dakota grandmothers Vi Kruckenberg Schielke, Beulah; her sister, Arlene Kruckenberg Knutson of Tuttle; and their quilting friends have anything to say about it.

Because of their diligence and a little logistical aid from North Dakota State University (NDSU) Libraries' Journey to the Homeland Tours, all the children at the Lighthouse Orphanage in Odessa are on their way to a sweet dreams in warm beds.

Growing up in a large rural North Dakota family, Vi and Arlene Kruckenberg (now Schielke and Knutson) have always been around quilting. They remember the many handmade quilts their mother created to keep everyone warm in their drafty farmhouse.

Reared in the heart of the Great Depression, they wore hand-me-downs and were grateful for everything they received. Of course, nothing was thrown away, and once a garment was too worn to wear, it found another use in one of their mother's warm quilts.

Neither of them dreamed that their early interest in quilting would someday be put to use to bring a touch of warmth to the children of an orphanage half a world away.

The NDSU connection

How did the ladies choose the children of Ukraine? Some time ago, Vi heard Michael M. Miller, bibliographer for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at NDSU Libraries, speak about the libraries-sponsored Journey to the Homeland Tours to Ukraine and Moldova in the former Soviet Union. Miller spoke of the effort put forth by tour members to bring humanitarian aid to the people of Odessa and the surrounding region.

Vi, a veteran of years of volunteerism with Lutheran World Relief, decided it was time to honor her ancestors, who left Russia for Dakota Territory a century ago, by giving back to the descendants of those who remained in Eastern Europe

Since recruiting Arlene, Vi and the two sisters' quilting friends at English Lutheran Church in Tuttle and Immanuel Lutheran Church in Zap have over the last two years provided more than 80 quilts for the children of the Lighthouse Orphanage.

In addition, Vi and her husband, Ervin, collect sewing items and make baby quilts to include in the quilt delivery to Odessa. The Shielkes then deliver all the finished quilts to Miller at NDSU. After receiving permission from the various airline carriers to take additional luggage to Odessa, Miller then arranges with various tour members to be responsible for a box of quilts until delivery is made to the orphanage.

As a member of the 1998 Journey to the Homeland Tour, I witnessed first hand the pleasure the dedicated quilters of rural North Dakota bring to homeless youngsters living in a small orphanage halfway around the world in the oldest part of Odessa, port city on the Black Sea.

As a native North Dakotan on the tour to visit my ancestral German villages in Ukraine and Moldova, I was part of the "quilt delivery team." I've always spoken proudly of my North Dakota heritage, but never felt a prouder North Dakota moment than that May afternoon in Odessa, Ukraine, when the children received their quilts.

Children, caretaker grateful for gifts

Existing on donations alone, the Lighthouse Orphanage functions under the direction of a burly, compassionate man named Deacon Alexander. With a small but dedicated staff, the deacon tries to meet the physical, spiritual and educational needs of the many 6-to-18-year-old residents. An emotional Deacon Alexander, speaking through an interpreter, thanked us profusely for our generosity. But it was the children we were all watching.

It was a sobering reality and unmistakable contrast to America's material wealth, that in late May, long past winter's vengeance, these youngsters were thrilled to claim their very own warm, brightly colored, handmade quilt--a gift of love from the grandmothers of North Dakota.

There they were, youngsters of all shapes and sizes, smiling shyly, souvenir American flag in one hand, new quilt in the other, and a timid curiosity about the Americans delivering these handmade expressions of love.

This year, North Dakota quilts will again make their way to the orphanage, delivered via the latest NDSU Libraries-sponsored Journey to the Homeland Tour, which leaves for Odessa June 6.

When asked why they do it, both Vi and Arlene agree that no one should be cold, certainly not children. Veterans of years of cold North Dakota winters, they remember how a warm quilt feels.

"I like the idea of recycling items to be made usable and giving fulfillment to the Lord's work," says Vi.

A labor of love

Making something out of nothing is no small endeavor. Opening the donated clothing items, washing them, cutting the quilt blocks, piecing them together, filling them... "we like bed sheets or the backs of draperies the best," says Arlene, "We don't want to send anything that won't hold up well."

When asked about the physical stress this kind of volunteerism creates, Arlene minimized their backaches with, " We do this out of love on Monday and Tuesday and recuperate on Wednesday." Clearly, this is a labor of love.

Even Allen Wagner, pastor at English Lutheran, Tuttle, takes an occasional turn at tying the quilts the church ladies make. Every quilt from the Tuttle church group has a corner square with this written text: "This quilt is made with love for you by your friends at English Lutheran Church."

Quilting has long been a way of women to work together to make a difference for others and provide emotional support for one another. The quilters enjoy a sisterhood of comfortable dialogue while keeping their hands busy.

"We talk about things past, things we would like to change, the years that have gone by, good times, hard times, raising families, and, of course, the work of the church," says Arlene. "Knowing we are keeping them warm" keeps these grandmothers at the weekly quilting sessions.

When asked if she has any desire to deliver the quilts personally to the orphanage in Odessa, Vi Shielke says quietly, "I don't need to see the faces of the children. We're just giving back what was given to us, The Lord knows what is in our hearts."

As for the feelings of the recipients, perhaps this thank-you letter, written by an orphanage employee following the May 1999 tour, says it best: "All children of our orphanage asked me to tell you that they love you. We love you not only by words, but also by our hearts."

Bismarck 4-H'ers send care package to Ukraine

Quilts were not the only gifts children of the Lighthouse Orphanage in Odessa, Ukraine, received from North Dakotans via a recent Journey to the Homeland Tour. The 12 members of the Dynamite Kids 4-H Club of Bismarck (ranging in age from 7 to 15) fulfilled their pledge to dedicate their "hands to larger service" by preparing special care packages for the children of the Ukraine.

Included in the packages were combs, nail clippers, socks, tooth brushes, hair ties, gum--plus letters, written by club members and accompanied by a Russian translation. The letters have since been put to use in the orphanage's academic program as a means of helping the Odessa orphans learn English. The Dynamite Kids 4-H also sent a monetary gift to the orphanage--all part of a project focusing on caring for other people.

Rev. Allen Wagner (above) helps tie yarn on quilts made by his English Lutheran Church's ladies group. (Photo by Ervin Schielke, Beulah, ND) Quilt project coordinators Vi Schielke, Beulah (left), and her sister, Arlene Kruckenberg Knutson, a member of English Lutheran Church in Tuttle, display quilts prepared by their fellow quilting friends. (Photo by Michael M. Miller, Fargo, ND)
Ramona Kasanke, Ardith Thompson and Violet Pulver piece together their quilting squares. (Photos by Ervin Schielke, Beulah, ND) Left to right: Quilt "Zappers" from Immanuel Lutheran Church in Zap include (from left): Back--Ellen Renner, LaVerna Unruh, Wilma Lang, Marilyn Engbrecht and Ruth Sailer. Front--Ramona Kasanke, Hertha Scott, Alma Buehlink, Ardith Thompson, Violet Pulver and Donna Olson.
Ukrainian orphange residents proudly display the quilts they received as gifts from North Dakota "grandmas." (Photo by Michael M. Miller, Fargo, ND)

Reprinted with permission of the North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine (http://www.ndarec.com/magazine.htm).

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller