A skill handed down by my mother and schoolteachers in Baguio, quilt making is an important part of my growing up and, eventually, retirement in 2008. As a working girl in Washington, DC, I spent many weekend hours at the G Street Remnant Shop. Among many retirees, one of the challenges raised is what to do with one’s time and resources when the pension funds start to roll?
To me this challenge was putting together my sewing passion and transitioning into an activity that helps others who need assistance. It was an easy move, since I already had a range of home sewing machines and a sizeable fabric collection picked up as souvenirs during assignments with the United Nations in Africa and Asia. But after the 35th quilt I made for refugee children in the Myanmar-Thailand border camps, I actively searched for organizations that could channel my interest into something more useful as an income earner.
Enter “Quilt for Kids Nepal,” founded in 2006 by James Hopkins of Lynchburg Virginia, a former New York investment banker. We found out that we had some mutual friends acquired on our UN assignment of ten years in Nepal. As a Buddhist convert James had quit his New York job to do some longterm meditation in India and Nepal.
The idea for “Quilts for Kids” began when James, visiting a Buddhist monastery, was touched by the very limited opportunities of many who live in poverty. They had practically no way to advance themselves given boundaries of caste, culture and tradition. His guru suggested that he need not see too far, and to meet a simple need. Just then a beggar came tugging at his sleeve, and James asked to be taken to his home at the beggar camp. Thus came the quilting project he envisioned after witnessing several women, with their babies, hand-sewing blankets from clumps of fabric laid out on dusty carpets, from tailors in the neighborhood. He found the quilts visually pleasing and thus started the coordination of the microfinance project. Through his network of friends and on a website, he sold the first quilts. He has since expanded to selling at the Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian and at wine and cheese parties organized by his former associates.
Income derived from these quilts is directly spent for school tuition, school uniforms, pencils, shoes, books, backpacks and warm clothing. The project operates from a field camp of street beggars in the Boudhanath neighborhood of Kathmandu. There are among the 400 or so families who live in an open field, creating their own camp called Jhopat Basti, or Naya Basti, just a few minutes away from one of Buddhism’s most holy pilgrimage places, the Boudha Stupa, in the Kathmandu Valley.
Many women in the camp are admirable quilt makers. With needle and thread they produce beautiful and colorful quilts for their own use, and also for income. My share in this project is to help beggar-caste women learn and improve their quilting skills towards an income-earning craft, using fingers and palms instead of rulers for measuring since they are unable to read, or using drinking cups as templates, and the linoleum floor of the Sewing House to determine the length and width of each quilt. From 2011 to the end of 2014 I have made six separate trips from Bangkok, holding sessions with groups of women who live in bamboo frames covered with tattered tarpaulins in the rainy season and open-roofed in the dry season.
James said he has been trying for years to try to improve the quality of the quilts, but since he is not a sewer, he found it a challenge; so it was fortuitous that I was willing to help as a volunteer. My language skills in Nepali and Hindi, though limited, helped.
The children, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of this brilliant project, are proud to be in school. Some of them are exceptionally bright and have made the highest honor rolls. They prepare for school each morning with scrubbed faces, the girls in their just-oiled braids, their new backpacks crammed with their school supplies, their uniforms and cardigans fresh from the laundry, white socks and school regulation shoes in good order.
When they come home after school and after tea, they troop on to the School House, not far from the Sewing House, where tables, chairs and a shelf full of donated books are at their disposal. There is a comfort corner where they can do their homework or read quietly, away for a good while from the crowding and younger siblings crying in the smoke-filled tents they call home. The School House was also built from the proceeds of the quilts. What a lovely and heartwarming sight – and the camp children’s other option would have been to be out in the streets, cold and shivering in rags and bare feet, begging for the next meal.
This small-scale and one-to-one direct assistance is effective and does not allow for leakages along the development assistance trail. Soon my own family became drawn to it. My husband, David, helped with the layout and preparation for James’ book: MANY THREADS: Invisible Children of Nepal (Ikuta Press, 2012). Our daughter, Pema Tara, did the cover design from New York.
The retirement phase of my life’s continuum has found a niche in my favorite hobby, quilting, and the satisfaction that volunteering is hopefully making a difference in the lives of those in the camp. And to continue the word association challenge, it has been converted into a mantra: “One quilt sold, one child in school for a year.”
Evelyn Domingo-Barker and her English husband David retired from the United Nations and currently live in Bangkok, while Seattle is their permanent home. Evelyn, Baguio-born, attended the University of the Philippines, University of Washington and the Catholic University of America. Both are textile enthusiasts, particularly of the Hindu-Khush area, and have published a number of articles in Arts of Asia (HK) journal, and some books available through a digital publisher, Issuu.