Turning Tears into Smiles Turning Tears into Smiles
Fairless Hills nonprofit Quilts for Kids comforts children who need it most
by Jocelyn Murray

As children, many of us had a “blankie” or favorite stuffed animal that was our closest companion—tagging along to nursery school or the playground, ultimately ending up in our bed at the end of a long day. More than simply keeping us company, they gave us a sense of security when we were afraid to face something alone.


For many children suffering from life-threatening illnesses, however, these well-used and often germ-filled companions are rarely allowed to accompany them through the toughest times because of the risk they pose. Luckily, Linda Arye, founder of the nonprofit organization Quilts for Kids, has stitched together a network of volunteers and other partners who help create safe, clean and well-made quilts to those who are most in need of a little comfort.


Arye, a mother herself, has witnessed the pain a child can endure, not only physically but also emotionally, during bouts of illness. He daughter, Mollie, now 23, struggled with near-fatal illnesses at the age of 4 and again at 10.


“I knew what it was like to have a child in the hospital and who couldn’t have her stuffed animal—her ‘Bear Bear’—because it was full of allergens,” Arye says. “Mollie would have benefited greatly from having something to hold onto while going through a very scary time in the hospital. … When [doctors] don’t know what is making a child so ill, they take away all the possibilities.”


Years later, after she had discovered mountains of fabric samples from a local design center in Philadelphia, Arye, then an interior designer, fused together two of her deepest-seated passions to create Quilts for Kids.


“It bothered me so much when my salesman said to me, ‘It’ll be in a trash bag today and a landfill tomorrow,’” she says. “I was thinking: Oh, my God! These fabrics are glorious. Why are they going into a landfill, of all places?”


It wasn’t until she had bags of fabric loaded into her Volvo station wagon did Arye begin to think of exactly what she would do with her new collection.


“I kept thinking: fabric samples … maybe cut into shapes … then sewn together like a patchwork … oh, a quilt!” she says. “My mind was racing—what would I do with something like a patchwork quilt? Uh, give them to kids like Mollie who were sick in hospitals so they have something to hold on to.”


In 2000, she started an organization whereby design centers could donate their discontinued and unused fabrics to make quilts for children in local hospitals.


“I thought maybe somebody else’s child would be less frightened when they were in the hospital [if they had a quilt],” she says. “Maybe it would make life easier for children who didn’t have a good chance of survival who couldn’t have their stuffed animals. I just wanted to do a good deed and keep fabric out of a landfill—that’s all I wanted.”


Not an Option

Since its founding more than a decade ago, Quilts for Kids has grown into an international organization, helping children and families all over, each facing a unique set of circumstances. Along the way, Linda has learned that it is not only these children fighting for their lives, but also her fighting to continue helping in any way she can.


She remembers a time early into the organization’s life when 18-wheelers would arrive at her home—Quilts for Kids’ base of operations for nearly 10 years—packed full of donated fabrics. This seemingly endless supply of clean, never-before-used cotton fabric helped Arye and her volunteers create these patchwork wonders. Then, in 2007 when the fabric mills moved off shore, she was forced to make a decision that could have changed the lives of thousands of children: either close the organization or find a way to raise money to purchase the fabrics.


“Closing wasn’t an option to me,” she says.


Over the last several years, the organization has developed relationships with key partners and programs to subsidize the $55 cost to produce and distribute each quilt. With notable partners such as The Downy Touch of Comfort program, Calico Corners and Rotary International, among others, the organization has been able to produce 1,500 quilts a week—a combination of quilting kits send out to volunteers at more than 60 sister chapters around the United States and quilts made at workshops held the first Sunday of each month at the nonprofit’s headquarters in Fairless Hills.


“I never expected it to get any bigger than staying in the New Jersey and Philadelphia area,” she says. “Then I realized how many sick children there were in the U.S. I figured if Philadelphia has this design center, there must be others around the country.”


The Kindness of Strangers

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Quilts for Kids reached out to 11 neighbors in Yardley who were directly affected by the event, and the organization constructed red, white and blue quilts for the children of the victims. Quilts for Kids was there again in late 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Southeast, sending quilts for evacuees and victims there and to those who were uprooted and forced to relocate to the Philadelphia area.


For Arye, despite all the sadness and potential tragedy she faces in the work Quilts for Kids does, the most heart-wrenching yet touching moments occur on delivery days and visits to local hospitals.


“It breaks my heart when [a doctor] comes over to me and says he was at a funeral and [the parents] buried the child with the quilt because they couldn’t imagine separating the child from the quilt,” she says. “That is the magic that goes into this.”


Despite the sometimes somber endings to the lives of quilts, it is the kindness of strangers—volunteers of time, effort and money—that brings the most light to this story. Each quilt is handmade by a volunteer and designed for children of all ages, from newborns to those in their teens or early 20s. Sometimes, people will even construct their own quilts and simply send them to the group’s headquarters.


Arye is optimistic about the future of her organization and the children it comforts. With dreams of one day owning her own building, instead of leasing as she does now, and finding more volunteers and funding to further her work, Arye has an even grander and more selfless vision for Quilts for Kids.


“My real hope is that we’ve found a cure for cancer and other illnesses and that puts us out of business,” she says. “That’s really my hope.”


Felicia Perretti is a freelance photographer based in Philadelphia.