ABC Quilts was founded in 1988, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, with the mission to lend comfort to babies born with AIDS. Now, its volunteers also make and deliver handmade quilts to abandoned babies and those affected by their mother’s drug or alcohol abuse.
Ellen Ahlgren of Northwood, New Hampshire began ABC Quilts, delivering six baby quilts to Boston City Hospital, each carrying the inscription “with love and comfort to you.” Soon after, ABC Quilts began to grow rapidly, and has since delivered more than half a million quilts worldwide.
From the archives this week, the story of Ellen Ahlgren and ABC Quilts, from reporter Leslie Bennett.
Postal carriers had become quite familiar with Ellen Ahlgren and her brown shingled farm house in Northwood ever since the boxes and letters started arriving by the hundreds. This grandmother started a project that captured attention from all over the country – and the world.
It all began because Ahlgren liked to quilt. After seeing how her grandchildren treasured their handmade gifts of love and warmth, she thought about other children who, by many, had been forgotten – babies born with AIDS. She founded the AIDS Baby Crib Quilts Project – known as ABC Quilts – to provide a quilt for every one of those children. After a slow start, the National Quilter’s Newsletter magazine helped put hundreds of hands to work.
“From this article, we’ve had responses from about 44 out of the 50 states,” Ahlgren said. “Including England, Japan, and Australia. They have all either called or written that they would like to help and know more about the project. And from that, it’s just snowballed.”
When this story was originally broadcast, over 700 quilts had been sent to babies from coast to coast. (To date, over 500,000 quilts have been delivered worldwide, according to American Mothers, Inc. – the organization that now runs the ABC Quilts.) At the time, most children with AIDS lived in hospitals because their parents had died from the disease. Ahlgren said this nationwide volunteer effort brought a little homespun care to children who wouldn’t normally get it.
“This project tells the story of what we, as the people of this country, can do to comfort and send some love to these children,” she said.
A Community Effort
In 1989, there were an estimated 3,000 children with AIDS in the U.S. (Today, fewer than 200 babies are born with HIV each year, according to AIDSinfo.) The children’s AIDS program at Boston City Hospital was the first of its kind in the country, and a model for others. Children diagnosed as HIV-positive from birth to five years old could live there. Thanks to ABC, they had handmade quilts, chosen to complement each child’s personality.
All kinds of people worked to make ABC successful. Friends and neighbors answered phones, helped with correspondence, and did whatever was needed to keep the momentum up. Donations came in the mail from strangers wanting to help out in some way, and local businesses offered their services free of charge. But the quilters were the heart of ABC.
Every week or so, members of the Northwood Quilting Club got together in Joanne Bailey’s kitchen, as they had for years. Yards of fabric were draped on the long kitchen table next to the wood stove. Little sewing baskets full of needles, thread, and fabric scraps sat within reach of each woman, who sat cutting or sewing wearing a thimble. This club spread the word of ABC, made some quilts, and even helped to make an occasional stich or finish an edge of quilts donated to the project.
Quilting And Social Activism
The link between quilting and activism has been around since the mid-1800s. Susan B. Anthony gave her first speech at a quilting bee, and women raised money during the civil war with quilts. Melody Graulich was an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire in 1989. Graulich taught a class on women’s literary traditions that explored the use of quilting and other domestic imagery in literary studies. Graulich said quilting was one way that women have expressed their social activism through the ages.
“I think one of the things that’s been interesting about women’s political work with quilts is that it has all been charity work,” she said. “I think that most of us feel in the twentieth century that the political world is kind of out of our control. And so what women have traditionally done is helped in the way that they can, and expressed their values in the way that they can really see themselves as affecting change.”
Ann White, a friend of Ahlgren’s for decades, worked on a number of different projects with her. White said ABC Quilts was by far the most rewarding. What could happen down the line? She hoped for a cure.
“It will just get bigger,” White said. “It can’t get any better, but it will get bigger, I’m sure, until we find a cure for AIDS. And of course the happiest day will be when the quilts are no longer needed.”
Ellen Ahlgren was named New Hampshire Mother of the Year in 1992.
She died in 2009 at 90 years old.
ABC Quilts is now managed by American Mothers, Inc.
Further reading, courtesy of Nonprofit Quarterly, here.