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Sleeping bags for the homeless
by Jan Spence

How Flo Wheatley's experience with the miraculous inspired her to start the My Brother's Keeper Quilt Group. 

Flo Wheatley held her young son, Leonard, as he was vomiting and near collapse. Returning from the hospital and his daily cancer treatments, they were a block from a subway station in New York City. It began to rain. Commuters rushed past them. Flo heard a voice say: "You need help, lady," and she looked up to see a homeless man, wearing jeans, sneakers and a cutoff army jacket. She felt a little fear and declined his help, saying: "No, we’re okay." But the homeless man said again: "You need help, lady." He picked up her suitcase and walked toward the subway. Flo and Leonard followed him and the three of them boarded the train. They all got off at Flo’s station and the homeless man hailed a taxi for her.

"I pressed a $5 bill into the man’s hand before the cab pulled away," Flo said, "and I heard him say, softly: ‘Don’t abandon me.’" Flo has never forgotten his words.

Two years later, in 1985, Leonard, who had suffered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was recovering miraculously. And in the small town of Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania (population 385), Flo Wheatley stitched her first sleeping bag, using her kids’ outgrown clothing — jeans, shirts and sweaters. She and her husband drove into Manhattan and gave the bag to a man huddled in a doorway. She made eight bags that year.

Ugly Quilts

News of her sleeping bags spread through the rural area and soon neighbors were dropping off fabrics at her home. A local church invited Flo to speak and to demonstrate how to make the bags. She named the family project My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group. She called the bags 'Ugly Quilts' so that volunteers wouldn’t think they were too difficult to make. The grass roots project continued to grow — women began gathering to sew and socialize. Many of the sleeping bags were delivered to Flo’s garage for distribution — her garage door remained unlocked to accept deliveries. In 1992, more than 5,300 'Ugly Quilts' were distributed to homeless people and to shelters in Manhattan and other large cities.

The Wheatley family created a single page of simple instructions on how to make an 'Ugly Quilt'. The first step is to sew pieces of fabric together to form a seven foot square, and then another one. These squares are joined together. Old drapes, blankets and mattress pads are added for padding and men’s neckties are used as handles. All the fabrics are recycled. There is a big demand for these instructions.

A mail crew arrives at Flo’s home every Wednesday morning for breakfast and to open the mail bags. There are requests for instructions from all over the United States as well as other parts of the world. A missionary in Mexico asked for instructions to make a bag for himself and to teach others to make sleeping bags. There was news from American volunteers at an army camp in Germany: supply planes had dropped 'Flo-designed' sleeping bags to the refugees in Bosnia.

In Mesa, Arizona, they have just completed 2,000 sleeping bags. In Fort Ogden, Florida, they have made one bag every week for five years. Flo believes that more than 100,000 sleeping bags have been made since 1985.

Eleanor Dugan and Becky Gordon co-founded the San Francisco group. By avocation, they are both quilters. They have gained national recognition exhibiting their quilts in regional shows. But today, they are committed to making sleeping bags. Becky said: "It’s simple. If you can tie a shoe lace, you can help make a sleeping bag. And a sleeping bag can save the life of a homeless person."

The informal group meets in Eleanor’s home, which looks like a warehouse. Hilton Hotels recently donated 200 bedspreads and mattress pads, filling her living room almost to the ceiling. Her dining room contains a large cutting table and a sewing machine. And there’s a sewing machine in the kitchen. "It is not Martha Stewart living*," said Eleanor, "but these bags are literally the difference between life and death to some of the homeless." Eleanor speaks and gives demonstrations at churches, schools, clubs, organizations, and the San Francisco County jail.

At a recent Bronx Community Center demonstration, Flo was expecting volunteers to come and make bags and distribute them to the homeless. But homeless families arrived on the scene, including children. They spent the day making bags. When they left, they took the bags and slept in them that night.

Benjamin Creme has confirmed that the homeless man who came to Flo’s aid near the New York subway station in 1983 was the Master Jesus. When Flo heard this, she responded: "I believe it! The basis of my life is in Christ. Our work does not belong to any particular denomination. It is open to everyone. We appeal to people who understand the suffering of other people and have the ability to reach out."

* Martha Stewart is a popular proponent of gracious living, American style.

From the May 1997 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005