Quilts of Honor, Quilts of Gratitude

By Mike Morris March 15, 2014 16:33

As a shy senior at Gustine High School, Gail Belmont auditioned for the Women’s Army Corps Band in 1969. She was accepted as a trumpet player, enlisted six days after her 18th birthday and was stationed at Ft. McClellan in Alabama.

Her first assignment: playing “Taps” at the funerals of fallen Vietnam War soldiers from Alabama and Mississippi.

“I didn’t even know what a funeral home looked like,” says Belmont, now 62. “Needless to say, that changed my life.”

What’s more, the Valley Springs woman recalls playing those final tributes in graveyards overgrown with three-foot-high weeds. “That’s not right,” she says.

Belmont is making up for that lack of respect now.

Not only does the veteran bugler still play “Taps” at military funerals, but she and a corps of dedicated volunteers have given living veterans thanks and appreciation for their service with patriotic quilts.

Since Belmont founded Quilts of Honor in 2010, the nonprofit, all-volunteer organization has presented vets with more than 1,500 quilts and each year turns out hundreds more.

Not bad for a woman who confesses that “I can’t even sew a button.”

Finding passion

The road to Quilts of Honor was long: After a three-year WAC hitch, four more in the Army Reserve and a quarter-century working a variety of government jobs at Sharpe Army Depot in Lathrop, Belmont found her passion.

She was moved to action in 2004, when her godson returned from a tour in Iraq with post-traumatic stress. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq taking their toll, she felt it was high time to give U.S. vets a measure of respect. But quilts?

“My parents, Bob and Virginia, had retired to Valley Springs and started a quilting business,” recounts Belmont, who moved to Calaveras County in 1996.

“I was no seamstress, but they had long-arm sewing machines and equipment to put together quilts, and I could operate those.”

So Belmont in 2005 joined Quilts of Valor, a large organization with chapters across the nation, and began creating quilts at her parents’ shop in Rancho Calaveras subdivision.

As part of that group, she and her parents in 2009 set out from Valley Springs on a mission. They stopped at quilting guilds across the country, collected patriotic handiwork from each and, at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, presented 1,300 quilts to Marines returning from Afghanistan.

Those were among about 4,000 quilts she and other local volunteers made for Quilts of Valor. But a year later, Belmont left the organization to start her own nonprofit, Quilts of Honor.

“I wanted a more personal connection with the vets we serve,” she explains.

“At Quilts of Honor, we include the name of the artist and the name of the recipient on each quilt. And most of the time we personally present each one to the veterans.”

Emotional link

A strong, often emotional link with individual soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines inspires Belmont and her fellow volunteers.

“I’ve always wanted to give something back to our warriors,” says 57-year-old Debbie Anderson of Valley Springs, Quilts of Honor’s treasurer and one of an all-senior corps of more than 30 Calaveras County volunteers. “At one presentation in Manteca, a Vietnam vet saw the quilt, leaned on my shoulder and just started sobbing.”

“Our quilts are often the thank-you that these guys have never heard before,” adds Belmont, who devotes up to 60 hours a week to this labor of love. “There are very few times when the recipient doesn’t cry.”

“It’s very emotional and very gratifying,” agrees quilter Barbara Thomas, 72, a retired business manager who volunteers up to 30 hours a week. “I’ll be doing this until I can’t do it anymore.”

Quilts of Honor has more than 300 volunteers in Central and Northern California, including a handful in Amador and Tuolumne counties and more in Oakdale and Turlock. With chapters in Wisconsin, Texas, Kansas, Virginia and Idaho, the now-national organization turns out about 2,000 quilts a year with oversight by a nine-member board of directors.

But its heart beats in Valley Springs.

“You’ve got to like red, white and blue to work around here,” Gail Belmont laughs at the nonprofit’s headquarters, her parents’ shop in Rancho Calaveras, as she sorts through piles of quilts emblazoned with stars and stripes.

Volunteers create the quilt tops, sewing together squares with patriotic patterns. Next comes a layer of batting, or insulation. A backing is then stitched on and finally, a border is added to keep the quilt together.

“As many as eight volunteers will touch each quilt before it leaves here for presentation,” says Belmont. “And they’re always one of a kind.”

Making a mark

In its relatively short life, the organization has made a mark. “Pentagon Pride” – designed and created by Belmont and artist Linda Hasbrook – is even part of the Pentagon’s permanent Sept. 11 Memorial Display Case.

Volunteers in 2010 went to Window Rock, Arizona, and presented quilts to Navajo Code Talkers who during World War II helped crack Japanese secret military communications.

In 2012, Belmont was invited to the White House after being selected as a Vietnam Veterans Champion of Change.

“I didn’t get to meet the president, but I did get lost in the White House,” she laughs.

Not only that, but on the same trip Belmont joined 180 fellow buglers from across the nation at Arlington National Cemetery to mark the 150th anniversary of “Taps.”

Quilts of Honor have also been presented to former President George W. Bush and to the Obama family.

But the highlight of this organization’s short history may be last fall’s trip to Washington, D.C. for a long-planned quilt show at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. The 60 volunteers who flew to the nation’s capital were greeted by a government shutdown that closed the Marine Museum.

A year and a half of planning, it first appeared, might have been for naught. “But we weren’t about to let the shutdown stop us,” says Belmont.

The volunteers moved barriers to visit the Vietnam War Memorial.

As “Taps” was performed, they laid a wreath at the wall and awarded quilts to visiting veterans.

And the Quilts of Honor show at the closed Marine Museum?

“We called Mt. Vernon, which is run by a private foundation, and they said ‘We’ll take you.’ ”

The volunteers hung 60 quilts in the auditorium at George Washington’s ancestral home. A new guest speaker and a Navy honor guard were lined up to open the show, and most importantly, all the quilts were presented to vets.

‘Someone cares’

But what keeps the Quilts of Honor volunteers stitching is not awards, acclaim or trips to the nation’s capital. It’s the appreciation of veterans closer to home.

“After 35 years, it showed that someone cares,” Vietnam veteran Michael McDaniel says of his quilt, which includes the Marine Corps insignia.
Airlifted out of Vietnam in 1969, the 65-year-old Valley Springs man received three Purple Hearts.

“It’s something I cherish very much,” McDaniel says of the quilt, which brightens his home den.

“Every person who visits our home witnesses your handsomely designed craftsmanship,” 92-year-old Walnut Creek resident Bill Hartung wrote in a letter to Belmont.

“It is a good reminder of your thoughtfulness.”

Belmont pays another tribute to families of fallen veterans. As a member of Buglers Across America and the American Legion Honor Guard, she several times a month plays “Taps” at the funerals of Central and Northern California vets.

“It’s still hard because it brings back all those memories from years ago,” she says.

Volunteers, recipients needed

As growing and productive as it is, Quilts of Honor needs more volunteers.

“We like to have 20 completed quilts on hand at all times, and we’ve fallen behind,” says Belmont.

Sure, quilters are always welcome, but there is plenty of other work – raising funds, sorting, packaging, shipping and more – for those who aren’t handy with a needle and thread.

More importantly, Quilts of Honor is always looking for more deserving recipients.

“Honoring our warriors,” says Belmont. “That’s our mission.”

Eligible for quilts are Purple Heart recipients, veterans who have served multiple tours of duty, those suffering from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries, and Vietnam vets whose health has been compromised by Agent Orange.

Quilts of Honor members attend quilt shows, fairs and festivals throughout the area to spread the word and to raise funds.

“My passion is our veterans,” Belmont says. “I’m helping my brothers and sisters.”

To volunteer, nominate a vet or learn more, call 772-2686 or visit quiltsofhonor.org. Tax-free donations can be mailed to 6516 Stabulis Road, Valley Springs, CA 95252.

For our story on other foothill groups welcoming quilters and fabric donations, click here.

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
By Mike Morris March 15, 2014 16:33
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