April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This article is part of a series featuring services offered for child abuse victims in Onslow County. It is provided in cooperation between The Daily News and One Place. This article appeared in The Daily News on April 19, 2020.
BY: Elliott Potter
One Place’s Child Advocacy Center is one of the primary hubs of efforts to help young victims of abuse and neglect in Onslow County. The children who go there receive physical exams, talk to trained counselors and investigators, and start their recovery.
But it is a gift they receive at the center that stays with the victims as a forever fixture in their daily lives, their minds and their hearts. Each child can choose and take home a quilt donated by the Carolina Pine Needle Quilters Guild.
The quilts are made with purpose and love. They are delivered to every child the same way. As one quilter put it: “It’s like getting a warm hug.”
The Child Advocacy Center is a part of One Place, which until recently was known as the Onslow County Partnership for Children. As its new branding reflects, One Place works in an expanding range of areas for the development and safekeeping of children, from child care and early childhood education to the investigation and treatment of physical and sexual abuse of children and cases of neglect.
Before connecting with the CAC, the guild donated quilts to children at hospitals throughout North Carolina. “When (the CAC) got started, we knew this was local, and we liked that,” said guild president Krista Meadows. “We knew when we started this, the people we were sending them to before still had other people who would contribute.”
John Getty, an investigator for the special victims unit of the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office, brought the two organizations together. “He knew about the quilt guild, and he was my son’s wrestling coach, so that’s the connection,” Meadows said.
In addition to leading the guild, Meadows runs her own quilting business, All About Quilting. She and the other quilters use the project to hone their skills and try out new ideas. “I have enjoyed being able to try out a pattern and then have a wonderful product that someone will love to show for it,” she said.
Kathleen Holbrook has served as director of the Child Advocacy Center since it opened in 2010. She said the quilts allow children to hold on to the good feelings they experienced there. “It is a reminder for them that people believe them, they support them, and they advocate for them,” Holbrook said.
The importance of their work is not lost on the quilters. “I have come in contact with different people over the years that received a quilt,” Meadows said. “They were so appreciative, and it made me feel good that we are part of the reason that they still smile, regardless of what they have been through. Hopefully, the warm hugs will help them through the tough times.”
Guild member Sue Miller said members of the group have visited the center and know about the serious work that goes on there. “You can’t help but become a part of it,” she said. There are about 35 members of the guild, and quilts also are contributed by a few other local groups such as the Sewing Sisters of Enon Chapel Baptist Church.
Another guild member, Sherry Crockett, said the center’s work hit home for her when a young relative was abused at a child care center by another child. While no criminal charges were brought, there was still trauma involved, she said. “That made this a little more personal to me.”
The quilts also impact adults. Acclaimed filmmaker Sasha Joseph Neulinger, whose personal story of molestation was portrayed in his award-winning film “Rewind,” visited the CAC two years ago and was presented a quilt by the guild later at a speaking engagement. He was moved to tears, as was the audience, one participant recalled. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”
There is a spiritual aspect, as well. Each quilt receives a blessing, and prayers written on slips of paper are sewn in with the batting. One quilter uses hearts or stars as part of her design as a personal message of hope. Every blanket has a label, “Stitched With Love.”
The quilts themselves are true pieces of art; in fact, some of them are hung as artwork throughout the center, where they serve a dual purpose by absorbing sound to protect privacy in interview rooms. Many of them are bright and colorful, and their designs are imaginative and entertaining. Even the more subdued designs serve individual needs.
The center serves children from birth until their 18th birthday, so there are many sizes, designs and textures available among the 300 or so quilts distributed each year. It is not all blankets for babies and toddlers; some older males require extra-large quilts. Themes can range from unicorns and superheroes to sports and John Deere.
Staff members prefer that children choose their own blankets. “I am always surprised at the boys who want what we may feel is a feminine quilt, and the dads will say, ‘Oh come on, son, don’t you want something more manly?’
“No. Let him have what he wants. It may remind him of mom or grandma or somebody else significant in his life,” Holbrook said.
CAC staffers also see the patchwork of the quilts as symbolic, representing the many functions — physical exams, forensic interviews, emotional support — that are integral to the center’s mission.
Every aspect is embraced by participants as a vital part of a healing process. “I always say that the quilts are the most valuable component of the services we provide to the children,” she said. “We have had a number of parents say to us several weeks down the road that ‘my child has not let go of that quilt. They took it home and I can’t pry it out of their hands. When they go to sleep, I wash it, because it’s getting grimy.'”
The blankets are not the only gifts that local artisans provide to visitors to the Child Advocacy Center. Quilters guild members made more than a hundred whimsical masks sized and styled for children to wear during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A guild member’s sister, who lives in the northern European country of Estonia, regularly sends boxes of crocheted dolls for the children. In the Japanese tradition of amigurumi dolls, they are as unique and fun as the children themselves.
The doll maker, Silja Esko, wrote in an email that the various creatures and characters help her relax as they come to life. “My dolls are full of love,” Esko said. “They need to share this love with someone because that is their mission: to share love with kids in need who are lonely, hurting or just in need of a friend.”
Esko expressed a sentiment common among quilters and other volunteers: healing the victims of child abuse and neglect requires the love and attention of an entire community.
Miller said the quilts serve as both a blessing and a reminder. “I am humbled each time I bring an array of quilts to Kathleen Holbrook,” she said. “To help children find warmth, love and comfort during a time of uncertainty is our pleasure.”
From across the Atlantic, Esko described being part of the team as an honor that lifts her spirits and raises children’s hopes. “The kids are so lucky to get all their handiwork,” she wrote. “My dolls are just a little drop of water in a big sea.”