Written by Katie Eichelberger
Volunteer Iowa Guest Contributor
We all remember the day it happened. Most of us as if it was yesterday. For some, it left scars. Scars that one organization hopes to mend.
Freedom Quilts started hours after the towers fell, on a farm in Fonda, Iowa, in the heart of a woman named Betty Nielson. To date, 8,300 hand-made quilts have been given to those affected on that terrifying day in history.
One special quilt however, reminds everyone that Iowa has not forgotten 15 years later.
“The country has moved on, but the memory is still there,” Betty said.
Betty and her team of volunteers at Freedom Quilts created a quilt covered with symbolic Iowa images and signatures in memory of 9/11. The quilt is named “Iowa Has Not Forgotten.” It will be displayed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York after being presented in Manhattan two days leading up to the 15th anniversary. Each year many travel long distances to visit the memorial.
“This year, they’ll get to see a gift from Iowa,” Betty said.
One quilt doesn’t speak enough to the sheer amount of dedication at Freedom Quilts.
Selflessly and purposely, each quilt is hand crafted by volunteers and Betty herself. Some take hours, weeks and even months due to the pure desire Betty has to make it right. There are simple quilts as she calls them and there are personalized quilts.
Her voice brightens as she talks about the personalized quilts. Betty gets to know each recipient family who has lost a loved one due to 9/11. She does so until she feels ready to turn those memories into something beautiful.
“I watch for those moments when families talk about their loved ones, the moments when I see the little spark on their face that leads to a smile,” Betty said.
If something doesn’t feel right, she puts the quilt on hold to meet with the family again, making sure the quilt is the perfect representation of family member that was lost. The nights leading up to the revealing are when Betty becomes anxious.
“Maybe something isn’t right,” she says to herself. “I have the biggest fear when I do these quilts, because they don’t see it until the day we present it to them.”
Then the day comes and tears of joy fall from each recipient’s eyes and Betty remembers they aren’t just quilts. They tell a story. The story of the heroes who saved lives that day, the men and women who enlisted because of 9/11 and the families they left behind to fight or even die for our country.
The stories that fill the hearts of the recipients also fulfill Betty’s life.
“Empty nesting is hard; my kids were gone and then 9/11 happened,” Betty said. “It was like God gave me a purpose to fill that void and to care for others.”
Purpose for Betty and purpose for others.
“It isn’t just my husband and I, it’s all the volunteers,” Betty said. “Together, we accomplish a lot and I feel very humble.”
Humble she is.
In 2008, Betty was inducted into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame and Freedom Quilts received the group Governor’s Volunteer Award. In 2012, Dennis Nielson, Betty’s husband, received the 10 Year Length of Service Governor’s Volunteer Award by a Freedom Quilts volunteer. Then in 2016, Freedom Quilts received another group Governor’s Volunteer Award.
“When I receive an award it goes to every one of us, they’re all a part of this amazing project,” Betty said.
She makes it clear that all donors, quilters and any hands that played even the simplest part in creating the 8,300 quilts given to grieving families all over the United States receive the award.
All supplies are donated and Fed Ex offers free shipping for the families that aren’t able to physically travel to receive their quilts. Those who are able receive their quilts through a special presentation. Freedom Quilts also provides housing, food and transportation for those families visiting, all funded through donations.
“To honor them in such a respectful way, that’s where the money goes,” Betty said.
The amount of impact cannot be measured in money raised, but in the amount of comfort provided to each recipient with each quilt.
This particular recipient brought Betty to tears as she told his story. He asked his mom if he could have a quilt in remembrance of his grandpa after seeing Freedom Quilts on Good Morning America. His dreams were haunted by September 11th and he had trouble sleeping. Betty, of course said yes.
She sent a letter along with the quilt, something she always does. This letter read: “Take your quilt and close your eyes, cover yourself with it and imagine its Grandpa’s arms wrapping you and loving you with it.”
He now sleeps in peace with his quilt, fulfilling the mission at Freedom Quilts: Made With Love To Comfort You.
“We do it and for one reason and one reason only; there’s so much pain in this world, if we can give a little comfort I feel good and so do the girls that help me and so does my husband. We feel a sense on this earth that we are meant to reach out and help others. This is my way of reaching out and helping others.”
To find out more about Freedom Quilts, please visit http://www.freedomquilts.net.