When it comes to "the tie that binds," the family and friends of graduating high school seniors who attend Kasilof Community Church have discovered a bond flexible enough to stretch around the world and strong enough to withstand time.
For 20 years, the graduates have been honored with handmade quilts that are filled with memories and stitched together by the people who know them best.
In return, honor is brought to the ones who pieced the quilts together, as the graduates carry their gifts as they journey away from home.
Melanie Baggett was given her quilt when she graduated in 1989. "I actually got to pick out the material," said Baggett of the bright blue, green and light peach combination she chose.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"Everyone was shocked. I don't think anyone thought it would be a nice quilt because of the colors, but it turned out beautiful. It's absolutely gorgeous."
Once Baggett selected her material, that was the last time she saw the fabric until the ceremony during which the completed quilts are given to the seniors.
"I was just speechless," Baggett remembered of the moment she first saw her gift. "The women did such a wonderful job on it. I remember being so excited."
At a tea following the ceremony, the quilts are put on display for everyone to see.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"I wanted to just take it and put it on my bed," Baggett said of the protective feelings she experienced from the moment the quilt was given to her.
Since that day, it has been on Baggett's bed when she was a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, as well as at the University of Arkansas. Tempor-arily relocated to Lynn, Mass., Baggett said she has the quilt safely in storage for the time being.
Shawn Houser received his quilt in 1997. Since then, it has been with him in Anchorage, Kenai and Soldotna. Now married and with a 13-month-old child of his own, Houser said the quilt has "a couple of stitches coming out, but it's held up pretty good."
Samantha Johnson's green and burgundy quilt was given to her in 1996. It traveled with her as she accompanied her husband to school in Seattle and New Orleans.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"It had special meaning for us," said Johnson of the quilt's ability to heal homesickness. "It reminded us of home."
Back on the peninsula and the mother of a 4-year-old and a 2-month-old, Johnson said the quilt fits her queen-size bed "just fine."
Katie Blossom's quilt, one of the first ones made, went with her when she left the peninsula in 1981 to attend Seattle Pacific University.
"That was the first year (the congregation) did the quilts," Blossom said. "I still use it. It's held up good. It's on my daughter's bed now."
Cheryl Morse, Sharon Knowlton and Delores Carter share a laugh as they try to decide on a Biblical quote for a quilt they are working on.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The idea for the quilts started when Traci Davis returned to Alaska from Billings, Mont., in the late 1970s.
"My friends there made me a quilt," Davis said. "It was just scraps of material that they put together. There really wasn't a lot of rhyme or reason to it. Just scraps put together with a sheet for the back."
What were important were the memories it carried -- and still carries -- for Davis.
"There's some threadbare places on it, but I still have it," she said. "It is such a wonderful remembrance of them."
The first few quilts at Kasilof were done in a similar fashion.
"The first few years we did it, we just did the same thing my friends had done," Davis said. "We just picked out colors and everyone bought different types of fabric."
Then in 1988, Jean Evenson, a church member, decided to step up to the plate and organize the project.
She's also an experienced quilter in her own right.
"She is really the one who turned the quilts into what they are today," Davis said.
Recipients of the quilts have been graduates from Skyview, Soldotna and Kenai Central high schools and Cook Inlet Academy. Next year's list of seniors includes graduates from Ninilchik High School.
Some quilts also have been done as wedding gifts and for a former pastor and his family when they left the area.
"When we first started, we tried to mark other milestones for some of the kids who had graduated just before we started doing this," Davis said of quilts given for college graduations and weddings.
One went to Davis' sister.
"She's had it with her in the Peace Corps and when she worked in Vienna (Austria) and all over the world."
Work on the quilts begins shortly after Christmas. The quilters work with two different patterns. One is a standard block pattern and the other is called an "attic window."
Each pattern also has 20 squares that are distributed by the graduating seniors' mothers to friends or family members. Accompanying each square is a brief biography about the student, with such information as favorite activities, locations, music and colors. The person given a square then comes up with a design specific to the individual whose quilt the square will become part of.
"The person doing the square has some history with the child and tries to incorporate that history or memory into their square," Davis said.
Written on the bio also is the date by when the square must be completed. After that, the mother is responsible for making sure the squares are completed.
"The biggest challenge is getting the pieces back in time," said Sharon Knowlton, Baggett's mother. "We've been here ready to finish and still needed squares."
Cheryl Morse has three quilts to her credit.
"I've spent until 3 a.m. putting the finishing touches on pieces."
Morse has helped make the quilts for two of her children, Ariel, 21, and Zach, 18. Her son, Nate, 17, will graduate next year.
"I already have the material for his quilt," Morse said.
Obviously her experience has taught her the value of planning ahead.
This year's quilts will be presented at the church on Mother's Day, May 13. As the day draws near, the quilters have been spending Monday mornings in Evenson's quilting studio to put the pieces of fabric together.
On a recent Monday, the sound of their voices discussing technicalities and the warmth of their laughter rose above the busy hum of sewing machines lining the walls of the second floor room.
A variety of techniques, including applique, cross-stitch, embroidery and beading were used to create the unique designs on the individual squares. Each piece told a little story, bringing to mind some characteristic of the person to whom it would eventually be given. And each one carried the signature of the person who had completed it.
The squares were pieced together with brightly colored borders. Hot irons stood ready to press seams into place and erase unwanted creases. The floor in the center of the room was reserved for pinning together the back, the batting and the front.
The congregation has made more than 100 quilts since the quilt-making project began, according to Peggy McGarry.
"Anyone who wants to be involved, can be," she said. "You don't necessarily have to know how to sew."
At her remark, everyone looked at Lynda Wandler and laughed.
"She's the ironer," someone said.
Quickly coming to her own defense, Wandler said she also has helped with sewing.
"But I don't quilt," she admitted.
Taking an opportunity to balance the scales, Wandler reminded the women in the room that even though she has two graduations to her credit -- one from heavy equipment school and one from truck driving school -- no one has made a quilt for her. It is a complaint the women have heard before. Their response: more laughter.
Leila Mattox said her family moved to the area from Idaho in October. When Mattox said, "Being involved in this is really a blessing," Evenson quickly replied, "She heard we were giving away quilts."
Again there was laughter among the busy women.
Delores Carter has been helping make the quilts for more than 18 years. Two have been for her daughters, Melissa and Tara.
"My son, Chase, will be a senior in two years," Carter said. "He's already looking forward to getting a quilt."
Judy Johnson has made three quilts, including the one for her daughter Samantha. This year, her fourth child will receive a quilt done in blues and greens. Proudly pointing to one of the squares, Johnson said, "I did that one."
Helen Tirrell worked with the quilters 15 years ago, but dropped out for a while. Recently becoming reinvolved in the project, Tirrell offered a historical perspective.
"They're getting pretty sophisticated about this now," she said.
While this was the only quilting experience for some of the women, that is not the case for Evenson.
Around the room, samples of her work adorn the walls. An album contains photos of her completed work. Some of her creations have been sold at local craft fairs. Others colorfully decorate the inside of the Kasilof Community Church. Curved seams and intricate patterns attest to her skill.
Although Jane Blakeslee became involved in the project in 1997, this year holds special significance. Her only son, Stewart, is graduating. As others have done with squares for their children's quilts, Blakeslee has asked a family member who lives out-of-state to be involved in making her son's gift.
With her eyes focused on the sewing machine, Blakeslee said it hasn't been an emotional experience for her, but she knew that might change when it came time to present it to her son.
"We think we're not going to cry, but then we get up there," said a woman sitting nearby.
Poems written by Johnson's husband, Brent, also have become part of the gift-giving ceremony. One year he wrote, "Look today at everyone's great quilt. Note the care with which they were built. Be sure to examine each varied square to find the message carried there."
Those words weren't lost on the Johnsons' daughter Samantha, who said the squares in her quilt that carried the most meaning were "probably the ones that have to do with commercial fishing."
"All of the squares match me," Shawn Houser said. "They were done by family members, friends and different people in the church. The quilt brings back a lot of memories from school and different times growing up."
Katie Blossom agreed.
"Each person who did a square did something special. (The quilt) has been a treasure all these years."
Melanie Baggett got the message, too.
"Every time I put it on the bed or folded it up, one square would catch my eye," she said. "Each of them was unique. They reflected the ladies who did them. They really make it personal. It's unbelievable."
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