Labor of Love Brings Quilts
Herzog, Karen. "Labor of Love Brings Quilts." Bismarck Tribune, 20 July 2007, B-1.
Arlene Knutson, of Tuttle, is the oldest of nine siblings. She understands hard times and hard work.
When she was a child, she and her siblings didn't have quilts, she said; to stay warm, they covered up with coats.
Knutson and her sister, Vi Schielke, of Beulah, and their husbands, Carl and Ervin, on Thursday brought 15 new quilts to the 37th annual convention of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, going on through Sunday in Bismarck.
Bettsy Williams, of Missoula, Mont., and her mother, Agatha Williams, collected the quilts from them to take back to Missoula, where Bettsy Williams has a friendly connection with the local Good Samaritan relief organization.
That organization allows Bettsy Williams to ship the quilts at
a much smaller cost than through normal channels. From Missoula
to Spokane to Portland and Seattle, it takes two to five months
for the quilts to arrive at their final destination, an orphanage
in Ukraine in the village that
was known as Landau when Knutson and Schielke's German-Russian ancestors lived there.
Each of the tidy, colorful quilts that Knutson has made this time has a little message written on the reverse, underscored with hand-drawn hearts. The quilt, it says, comes from a North Dakota, USA, grandmother who wishes them warmth and joy.
"I want those kids to be warm, because I know what it's like to be cold," Knutson said.
"It's truly a labor of love," said Bettsy Williams.
When descendants of the Germans from Russia sign up for one of
the annual "Tours of the Homeland," they visit the villages
in south Russia where their German forebears settled and lived for
generations, places that might still be their homes had not their
ancestors decided to emigrate,
mostly to America's Great Plains.
What remains of Germany in the village that was once called Landau are about 600 people, of which one woman still is of German extraction.
When a group of German-Russians visited this mostly German Catholic
ancestral village in 1999, they discovered a former German elementary
school that is now a government facility housing around 130 Russian
orphans. More than half of the children - 80 percent boys and 20
girls, first to ninth grade - have disabilities of some sort, Bettsy Williams said.
What the American tour group found the children didn't have - soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, aspirin, bandages or enough warm blankets.
"Let's see if we can be of some help," said tour leader Michael M. Miller, bibliographer for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection in Fargo.
In 2000, Bettsy Williams took the orphanage its first six quilts. The school held a drawing for them and the children took turns sleeping with them, she said.
Williams has made five trips to the orphanage since then, bringing back photo albums of the children proudly posing with quilts on their beds. And Knutson and Schielke - with husbands marshalled into service as well - have made a mini-industry of making sure as many children get quilts as possible, a project that takes about 30 hours per quilt, Schielke estimated.
It's a way to honor their roots, the sisters say. Though life on the prairies of North Dakota was hard, there's a lot to be thankful for, Knutson said: simple things such as books, writing paper, heat and food.
Transferring the quilts at this convention will save shipping costs from North Dakota to Missoula. Knutson also has brought along a box of new hair brushes and combs, simple accessories precious to an orphanage short of many things.
But things are looking up. The teachers there are very kind and
loving with the children, Williams said. And recently the government
raised its food allowance from its previous 25 cents per day per
child, Williams said. A new heating system, safer water and an improved
outhouse has gone
in. With the help of a donation from Evelyn Fleck Simpson, of Seattle, the children now have some exercise equipment suitable for children with disabilities. German-Russian donations have bought two electric sewing machines to supplement the treadle machines on which the girls learn to sew.
With Knutson, Schielke and other area quilters sending close to 300 quilts in the past few years, there's finally enough for one for each child, although the school tucks them away part of the year and saves them for the coldest weather, Williams said.
Donations of money are the most efficient way of helping the orphans, Miller said, but the quilts are very important.
"It's like sending a hug," Knutson said.Photographs by Michael M. Miller:
For more information on the orphanage quilting project, visit
www.grculture.org and select "humanitarian