Last week I spent a little quilt time with some kids about 90 minutes from my home. This should have been less challenging than some of my other traveling quilt adventures since the kids all spoke my language and I didn't have to lug my stuff onto a plane. But this experience took a little more courage...and moved me a tiny bit more than my other quilt gatherings in recent months.
Children of Galveston
Since I knew my husband and I would be in Galveston for a few days in September, I did a little internet exploring and learned about a shelter that houses homeless families. After a few phone calls and some paperwork, I was lined up to volunteer. As always, I spent days before my visit wondering about the kids I might be working with. In fact, for years I've pondered about the kids of Galveston... Galveston, long ago. When I first visited the city 15 years ago, I was haunted by the story of the children of St. Mary's Orphanage who weren't able to survive the flood of the Great Storm in 1900. I've always felt that the spirit of those dear children and the nuns who sang to calm them must still be lingering on the island.
On Thursday evening after dinner, I walked up to a brick building lugging 2 tote bags and feeling a bit uneasy. My bags were full of props and my brain was full of activity ideas, but I had no idea what I was actually going to do. I didn't know how many children I would have or their ages, or who would greet me and what the space would be like. I didn't even know if I should knock or walk in. Soon I was inside the kitchen talking to a woman washing dishes. She reached for the phone with soapy hands and talked to the director who apologized for the communication glitch, since no one in the center knew I was coming. The dishwasher dried her hands and went into the entry hall and called upstairs to the kids. She said I could use the spacious hall for my activity, then she sighed and explained, "Now most of the kids are bathing and getting ready for bed." I think she wondered why I'd been told to come at 6:30...so did I.
Gathered on the Quilt
I spread out the quilt on the floor as a few kids entered. The first child I noticed was a young girl holding a baby, tiny enough to have been born that day! I was relieved a minute later when she handed the fragile bundle to her own mother and settled onto the quilt with about 15 other kids. The kids ranged in age from about 2 to 13. Some were fresh from an evening bath, but most still wore school uniforms. All were squirmy and eager with anticipation, so I grabbed the puppet bag first. I winked to older kids to play along and soon every child was taking turns singing into the bag to wake Pickles from his nap.
Scraps of Fabric
Puppet aside, I had the kids examine what they were sitting on. They had fun pointing out the suns and fish and balloons on the quilt material. We talked about how quilts can be made with old scraps from worn clothes and then I handed out some scraps of fabric to the kids. They examined the prints and I was surprised how curious they were, pointing out the colors and animals and designs they found. Not one child complained about wanting a different color or print. Then we had some fun with the puzzle challenge of fitting the shapes together to create a new quilt design. The older ones were pretty involved, but the little ones grew restless. Time to move on.
I tried out a few games, but the wooden jumping man was once again the star. When I have a wide age span, the puppet dancing on the board seems to be the only thing that pleases all. By the time the kids were up jumping and dancing and singing along with the man (they named Mr. Basketball) a few moms had pulled up chairs. Now and then I saw a brief smile, but these moms were weary and it was bedtime for the little ones. I felt a twinge of guilt because I do remember what it's like to put kids down after they have been wound up physically. I softened things a bit with some quieter games and then I had Pickles come out to say good-bye. I wish I could have read each little one a story before bed. I wish I could have helped the mom who struggled to round up her 6 kids off for bed. It didn't look easy.
I made sure to quietly thank the 6 oldest children. I had noticed these kids on the quilt, raising their hands like polite school children, eager to answer my questions or to take a turn. I had expected some of these kids to roll their eyes at some of the kiddie activities or at having to share the quilt with little kids. But not only did they participate, they encouraged the younger ones to sing along and take turns. There was an amazing family feel to this group of kids, even with the kids who had no siblings. Before the older ones headed off, I quickly showed them the new quilt I've been gradually building using fabric squares decorated by children from all over. "Thanks for helping me with the little guys." I told the big kids. "After you help get them back to their moms, if you want to come help me with this quilt, I'll be around a little longer."
A few minutes later the kids returned, along with a little brother who convinced me he was a big kid. For the next 30 minutes I felt my (what am I doing?) stress drain. The time on the quilt had been fun, but these peaceful minutes standing around a table with markers and fabric and quiet conversation is what I will always remember. The kids took time picking material and talked about what they were drawing...dogs, stars, going to the park. One boy said he had to go help his mom get the kids to bed. He took a square with him and returned later with a list of 7 names on a square...his name and his siblings. Another young boy grinned when I praised his geometric design. Then he rushed off and came back with spiral notebook packed with his drawings. "Guess who taught me to draw?" Then he beamed with his answer. "Nobody. I taught myself."
First Visit, First Day
A few of the kids asked when I was coming back. I wanted to say "Very soon." But I was honest, telling them it was my first visit and I hoped I could come again. One disappointed boy said he had hoped I would come on Fridays. Then a quiet young girl who was decorating her pink square with a pink marker, looked up with a surprised little smile. "Really? It's my first day here, too." I laughed gently and said. "We're both new!" But it made me sad to think about how uneasy she must feel, since I knew a little bit of that feeling when I entered the building 90 minutes earlier.
We spent some time looking over their drawings and words and I thanked them for letting me add them to the quilt. I let them pick out some material shapes to keep for themselves and before long they dashed off up the stairs. As I headed out the front door I noticed 3 women and a few kids chatting under the street light. I waved and made some comment about the weather and then the curious Moms began to ask questions about why I had come. "Too bad you have to go back to Houston." One woman said. "The kids get bored. They need things to do. I wish you could come on weekends." I promised to look into it and then we chatted a while longer. So maybe it wasn't just the kids who enjoyed a little break in routine. It was a nice way to end my visit, with a mom-connection. I heard their voices as I pulled from the curb. "Drive careful now. Be safe!"
What I Learned
The next day I couldn't stop thinking about those amazingly resilient kids who showed few signs of the stress they must live with. The moms who came to gather them, appeared a little worn out or worried. And the one dad I saw, offered only a weak smile when his son hollered, "Look Daddy! It's Pickles!" Unlike the parents, every child I saw on Thursday evening showed the ability to stop and enjoy the moment. There wasn't a child in that group who didn't show me their positive side even for a while. Maybe it's just the strength of youth, or maybe the spirit of those dear children from St. Mary's Orphanage really is lingering on the island!
The day after my visit, Don and I were exploring the island and came across this old building just around the corner from the shelter. After doing a little research I learned this was a Protestant Orphanage that did survive the hurricane in 1900. The organization that runs the shelter where I volunteered actually has roots that date back to this orphanage. So the kids I worked with do indeed have a distant connection to some brave orphans who faced the storm of 1900. Or... let's at least say, the kids of Galveston are a pretty tough bunch!
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.