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Veterans receive red, white, blue quilts from local group
Quilts of Valor present service members with symbol of appreciation during church service
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Walter Maxwell Smith, who served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy from 1962 to 1970 in addition to serving in Vietnam, receives a quilt from the women of the Quilts of Valor. The presentation occurred during a ceremony Sunday at Central Baptist Church in Gainesville. - photo by JOSHUA L. JONES

On Eagle Wings chapter of Quilts of Valor 

When: 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. the second Thursday of each month

Where: Central Baptist Church, 785 Main St. SW, Gainesville

More info: qovf.org

As people poured through the doors of Central Baptist Church on Sunday for the 11 a.m. service, it was hard not to notice the two empty rows in front.

Each end was decorated with bright red, white and blue ribbons. As the service was set to begin, a group of silver-haired gentlemen walked in. They were dressed in navy blazers with colored stars and pins highlighting each man’s honorable service to his country during the Korean War.

With Veterans Day on Wednesday, the Quilts of Valor organization decided to honor seven of those military men with handmade quilts stitched with gentle hands and red, white and blue colors.

Named “On Eagle Wings” and led by Betty Heathman, the Quilts of Valor group has grown from six members in January 2014 to 19 members now. Through their work and dedication, the group has presented more than 200 quilts to deserving servicemen and women in the Gainesville community.

Heathman founded the group after visiting a similar group in Gwinnett County.

“I decided we needed to start a group in Gainesville,” she said. “I’ve got a good bunch of ladies and we enjoy being together and making quilts. Anytime you do anything for somebody that shows appreciation, that makes it worthwhile.”

When the group started, the members paid for fabric, thread and quilting materials out of their own pockets, limiting the number of quilts to be made. Then the organization started raffling off quilts at local festivals. The money from the raffles along with monetary and supply donations — such as 100 percent cotton fabric in red, white, blue or gold — have doubled its number of quilts.

The recipients then reverently and gratefully accept the quilts into humble arms.

“They all enjoy the quilts,” Heathman said. “They look forward to it. In fact, I’ve had a man tell me that that’s like getting the Purple Heart. It’s not just a quilt that we give them, it’s an award.”

Korean War veteran David Row agreed, noting the quilts are priceless to him and other veterans.

“I wouldn’t trade it for $30, $40 or $50,” he said. “It’s really a prize. It’s a real honor that they would think of us, without question. They are beautiful.”

Being honored and recognized for his service 62 years after returning home is something Row said he and the others are not used to.

“To have somebody honor us this late, this many years after, when they didn’t think too much of us back then, it’s quite a tribute,” he said. “I can tell you there wasn’t a person who didn’t walk out of there with pride. Truly walked with pride after they received their quilts.”

Quilts of Valor member Peggy Johnson had no idea how much a quilt could mean.

“When I started, I was thinking it was just a quilt,” she said. “It didn’t seem like we were doing that much for them. But the guys really get emotional about it, especially the Vietnam veterans (who) were treated so badly when they came back. They’ll make comments that they didn’t think that anybody cared. It really releases a lot for them and lets them know that what they did was of value to people.”

Part of the veterans group who already had a quilt, Chuck Henderickson was happy to see more men receive a quilt. He was also pleased to meet the women who spend three to six months making one quilt.

“It’s a great undertaking,” Henderickson said. “But this chapter here, those ladies are the finest things. They’re so nice. “I’m proud of mine and I’ve used it.”

That kind of positive response keeps Johnson and others going, despite the timely process.

“It gets us motivated to go home and sew some more,” Johnson said.

On Eagle Wings meets from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. the second Thursday of each month at Central Baptist Church, 785 Main St. SW, in Gainesville. No experience is necessary.

“We don’t really have any requirements,” Johnson said. “We’ve had people who don’t really know too much about sewing come in and we’ve helped them, explained how patterns work, how the machines work.”

In addition to sewing together, each session usually consists of a short meeting, a light lunch and other tasks such as ironing the fabric, cutting pieces or assembling take-home kits.

“Even if they don’t want to sew or make a quilt, they can always go to the presentations with us and help that way,” Johnson said.

Korean War veteran John Jack Enkemann said the hard work the women put into a quilt represents their thoughtfulness.

“One of the reasons we did what we did when we served our country was to protect the freedoms that we had,” Enkemann said. “For people to recognize (that) and thank us for what we gave, what many of us gave.”

For more information about Quilts of Valor or to nominate a service member in the area, visit qovf.org.

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