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'Hearts and Hands' : Concern for at-risk babies is the common thread that links quilters from around the world. Even children and prisoners find joy on the patchwork path of love.

November 24, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHWOOD, N.H. — Quilters are always thinking about the next pattern. More importantly, they think about who will get that next pieced-together monument to geometry and craftsmanship. They think about who will touch it, who will hold it close.

"Hands and hearts," said Ellen Ahlgren, sharing the formula of this ancient and universal form of textile art. That was what was on Ahlgren's mind in 1988, not long after she had retired as a high school teacher and taken up quilting.

She was finishing up the last of 20 quilts for immediate and extended family members. She was also leafing through a newsletter from psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, with whom Ahlgren had studied in another of her retirement projects. Kubler-Ross had written about the plight of 3,000 babies abandoned in hospitals around the country after being born with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"And I thought, well, why in the world couldn't we just make 3,000 quilts?" A hearty woman, Ahlgren had to laugh in retrospect at her own ambitiousness. "I thought, 'that's nothing.' " She chuckled again. "You know me, the eternal optimist."

Little did Ahlgren know that she was setting forth on a patchwork path paved with love, goodness and the generosity of strangers. Ahlgren's initial algorithm--AIDS babies need love and comfort; quilts are comforting and made with love--became the spark for ABC Quilts, the not-for-profit empire she has overseen since 1988 with her friend Ann White.

From their headquarters in a church basement in this southern New Hampshire hamlet, Ahlgren and White have seen to the distribution of 161,000 handmade quilts for babies in hospitals across America. In addition, ABC Quilts sent almost 2,000 quilts to infants in Romania, as well as 400 quilts bound for babies in Bosnia.

Globalizing their project turned Ahlgren, 75, and White, 74, into ad hoc, unpaid multinational entrepreneurs--complete with their own board of directors. They have quilters in Japan who supply futon-sized baby coverlets. In fact, in Japan at this summer's international conference on AIDS, Ahlgren and White gave presentations about their work. Their new international focus prompted Bob Keeshan, better known in many homes as Captain Kangaroo, to describe ABC Quilts as "love letters to the world."

As its mission has broadened, so has the group's name. ABC originally stood for AIDS-Babies Cribs; now, as the hand-sewn coverlets are offered to children born addicted to drugs or alcohol as well as to those exposed to AIDS, the acronym has been extended to At-risk Babies Cribs.

"This is such a lovely example of non-ideological social action, people coming together to do what they can for vulnerable children," said Washington, D.C., children's advocate Susan Nall Bales, who serves on ABC's board.

"It's such a piece of Americana," Bales said. "It makes you think of the unique relationship of quilting to social action, as in the temperance and anti-slavery movements."

A white-haired mother of five, grandmother of nine, Ahlgren "put a little ad" in a quilting publication to get the project off the ground. Among those who responded--with a quilt and a note wondering what else she could do to help--was Eileen Van Fleet of Glendora. Ahlgren promptly wrote back and drafted Van Fleet as her West Coast coordinator.

Van Fleet, a retired labor and delivery nurse, was immediately struck by how the quilting venture brought together so many disparate segments of society. There were the babies, of course--and often there were the mothers, grandmothers or others who would care for them. But there were also thousands of quilters--often, Van Fleet said, "men and women who didn't feel needed or loved any more, sitting home in their trailer parks." On some occasions, Van Fleet has received quilts from families who have crafted their quilts in memory of lost loved ones.

Even Ahlgren and White are mildly astonished at the swath their project has cut. So many students--from elementary school to college--began making quilts for ABC that in 1992 Ahlgren came out with a book, "Kids Making Quilts for Kids," published by the Quilt Digest Press. Home economics classes have embraced the quilting effort as for-credit philanthropy, and several colleges have staged "quilt-a-ramas" to assist ABC. On the wall beside Ahlgren's desk is a photograph filled with beaming Southern California children. The caption, from Ocean Knoll Elementary School in Encinitas, reads, "650 Students Made 77 Quilts."

In Lilburn, Ga., 16-year-old Eagle Scout Travis Armstrong made several quilts himself and enlisted local quilting guilds to make others for ABC. Some quilts were arduously sewn by hand, detailed efforts that took weeks to complete; others were made on sewing machines in a matter of hours.

When his final collection tally was 55 quilts, Travis explained that he had been drawn by the notion that for many of these babies, a quilt might be their sole possession.

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