With her trusty sewing machine, Virginia Howard can turn three yards of fabric into a feeling of comfort for children who need it.
Howard, 89, leads the only Quilts for Kids chapter in Southern Arizona. The nonprofit makes quilts for children facing abuse or illness to make them more comfortable in potentially scary situations.
“I was raised in children’s homes, and it would have been wonderful if someone had given me one when I was little,” Howard said. “I said, ‘Well maybe this way I can give back.’ I enjoy it, and it’s just nice to see the children smile.”
Kids receive Howard’s quilts at Tucson Medical Center and Banner Diamond Children’s Medical Center. A quilt can provide them comfort, or at least something to cuddle with.
“When they get [to the hospital] they’re very frightened, they’re very afraid, they’re away from their family or their home,” said BJ Godard, administrative specialist for pediatrics at Banner Diamond. “The blankets are the first line. It’s the one thing that they can take and wrap around themselves, and they can get warm or they can just cover up their head and hide from the world for a little while.”
Howard, a Marana resident and lifelong sewing enthusiast, joined Quilts for Kids after she learned about it through a magazine. Howard sent quilts to the national headquarters in Pennsylvania several times, but she wondered if she could distribute her quilts to the local community instead. So, she created her own chapter of the nonprofit.
Now, seven years running, Howard creates and donates between 65 and 100 quilts every other month to the two hospitals.
She has a little help in her mission. Howard sends quilting kits to the Palo Verde Valley Quilt Guild in Blythe, California, and quilters from the Agave Quilters Guild of Sun Lakes, Arizona, and they send her finished quilts in return.
Howard creates quilts herself in her sewing room at home. The room is a seamstress’ paradise: Cabinets stuffed with rolls of fabric, meticulously organized by color and print, drawers brim with one-inch fabric squares, bins of fabric scraps await salvage as a new quilt. She quilts there every day.
“I get in here, and then I don’t want to leave,” she said.
Howard sews the tops of quilts before she sends them to a friend to do some quilt work on the back. She averages a quilt a day, using materials she supplies herself. Whenever she’s done with a quilt, she hangs it up on a wall in the room to take it in.
When it’s time to take the quilts to the hospital, Howard sorts them on the quilting table her husband built for her, and divides them into three piles depending on if they’re geared toward girls, boys or either. She takes the quilts to the hospitals six times a year.
“I feel like a grandma that is taking [quilts] to her grandchildren,” she said. “What grandma doesn’t do it? So that’s what I do.”
Howard made her four daughters and two stepdaughters clothes when they were little, creating several outfits for each of them during the Christmas season. She’s been sewing since she was eight, when her mother taught her.
“I’ve been doing anything with a needle since then,” Howard said. “I enjoy sewing, I really do. I enjoy making things. I’m a craft person.”
She has tried her hand at knitting, crochet and embroidery. Now, she shares her crafting skills with more than just her family.
“Our rooms are as kid-friendly as they can be, but it’s still pretty plain,” said Heather Roberts, child life supervisor at TMC. “So when you have a quilt in the room, it makes it more like home, more fun, and helps transport the kids so they don’t have to remember being in the hospital every single second.”
Roberts has received quilts from Howard for the past four years.
“They’re all clean and neatly folded and beautiful, lots of fun colors and prints and things that will make our kiddos smile,” Roberts said.
Howard’s quilting doesn’t just help the community; it also creates a community of her own within quilters. With her work with the Palo Verde Valley Quilt Guild, Howard became good friends with guild member Margaret Bradley.
“We have become very good close friends, and she’s very generous with what she does,” Bradley said.
Quilts for Kids can prove beneficial for the quilters, too. Howard recalled a time when encouraging a quilter to pursue their work with the nonprofit helped bring them out of their shell.
“It’s just a little thing that you can do to help somebody that makes you feel good,” Howard said.
Above all, Howard said she’s happy helping the organization. She looks forward to trying out different patterns, such as a “trip around the world”-style quilt, and figuring out how to incorporate the colorful scraps she’s collected into a new collage quilt.
“I’m still having fun,” Howard said. “I’ll do it as long as I can.”
Ava Garcia is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.