Quilting for a Cause: 'I had a lot of fun doing the sunshine'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - In a shop off busy Fairview Avenue, the only sound you hear is a soft whirr.

It's the sound of mad sewing by the NICU quilters, Treasure Valley women who meet once a month to bond over their Bernina machines and fill a need.

Quilting can be a solitary affair. And that's why the eight or so women in the room like the monthly opportunity to gather and gab.

"Most of us are widows," says Helena DeWeerd of Mountain Home. "It's something to do."

But this event didn't happen by accident. It was the idea of Colleen Madsen, a local grandmother who has had two grandchildren born prematurely.

The first was her grandson, Matt, who weighed just two pounds at birth.

"After you've had a child or grandchild go through that, you want to do something to help," she says.

Madsen had heard through friends that the NICU units at both St. Luke's and St. Alphonsus are eager for small quilts that can be used to wrap the premies.

"It's kind of a thank you to the nurses, too, because they work really hard," she says smiling.

In a room hung with quilts, you're hit by sensory overload. But that's by design. Bright hues are key, no matter the quilt size.

Jerimi Paul-Burnside is new to the group, but she already knows what she has to do.

"I like really obnoxious colors, especially for the NICU children," she says fingering a panel she's just finished.

Her quilt is a mix of bright blues and pinks and greens. And there's a big bright sun in one corner.

"I had a lot of fun doing the sunshine," she says with obvious pride.

Paul-Burnside says she's learned a lot from the other quilters, even in the span of a few months.

"When you come in as a beginner, it's like Picasso is your mentor. It's intimidating," she says while looking around at the other projects.

But quilters are famous for their mutual support. You've heard of the "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"? There's a similar vibe here.

"It's awesome," says Paul-Burnside." "People come up and say, 'Did you know if you did it this way, it's faster and cheaper?' and that's really handy."

Some of the women in the room are making quilts the hard way, by hand. They gently pull a needle and thread through swatches, listening for a tiny pop that tells them the needle has successfully joined the pieces of fabric.

Hand-stitching is the way quilts were made before the Industrial Revolution took hold. And even today, some of the more successful quilters insist on using techniques that they admit are time-consuming but ultimately more satisfying.

But whichever method these women choose, the goal is the same: to help the babies.

Colleen Madsen pulls out some photos of her grandson. One shows him at just a month old, his head no bigger than a fist.

She nods when asked if it's hard to think back to that time in his life.

Matt is now a strong and healthy 7-year-old. But Madsen still sees his success as a miracle.

"The last time I visited, he said, 'Grandma?' 'Yes.' 'Mom said I almost died when I was born.'

"I said, 'Yeah, but you're big and strong now.'"

Madsen is quiet for a moment; her eyes well up.

"It's...yeah." She pauses and leaves the sentence unfinished.

A few days later, she's in the lobby of St. Luke's and in a far sunnier mood.

The NICU staff has been alerted that the baby quilts are on their way.

Upstairs, Madsen is met by hospital staff and proudly removes eight small quilts from a large plastic shopping bag.

As she runs through the pile, she quickly ticks off the names of each quilt's creator. It's quite a feat.

A supervising nurse takes her into one of the NICU rooms to measure a quilt against the top of an incubator. Madsen learns that some quilts could be slightly larger so they can be used to drape the units.

In the hall outside, Emily Callahan, a registered nurse, explains how grateful they all are for volunteers like Madsen.

"The babies tend to take two steps forward, one step back. It's a hard environment for any parent," she says.

The quilts, says Callahan, are a godsend.

A few feet away, a young couple hovers nervously over their twin daughters. Tahja Ulmer explains she and her husband Jeff are taking things one day at a time.

"Obviously," she says, "when you first learn you're giving birth at 25 weeks, it's terrifying."

When told about the quilts, she smiles, because she figures her tiny daughters now have more grandmas than they know what to do with.

The NICU quilters might be strangers to the Ulmers, but their love is something you can wrap your arms around.

They're hugs in every hue.