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Missouri prison inmates spend hours each day making personalized quilts for children in foster care

"Making birthday quilts for these kids is the most meaningful thing I've done since I've been in prison," one of the inmates said.

Missouri prison inmates spend hours each day making personalized quilts for children in foster care
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/MaxCab

A small group of volunteers at the South Central Correctional Center in Missouri is on an ambitious mission to sew personalized quilts for every foster child in Texas County. The seven men in the quilting program meet daily in the prison's sewing room and spend hours sewing together squares of fabric to make intricate designs. "When I was a kid [in Chicago], my mom sewed drapes, but I never thought of sewing as something I'd want to do myself," 66-year-old Fred Brown told The Washington Post. "I learned quickly that women who have sewn all their lives are mathematical geniuses. It takes a lot of math to calculate your seam allowances. And the angles and circles. There's a lot that goes into it."



Brown, who is serving time for armed kidnapping and rape, began sewing four years ago (25 years into a 15-years-to-life prison sentence) when he heard about a small group of inmates gathering daily in the sewing room to make quilts for charitable organizations and children in foster homes. "When I learned that I could help bring a smile to a child's face, I was all in," he said. "Right now, I'm working on a puppy quilt that will go to a 13-year-old boy. I don't know anything about him, but I have a feeling he's going to love this quilt."



According to St. Louis Public Radio, the quilting program—which started about 10 years ago—hinges on the concept of restorative justice, which prioritizes community-building and rehabilitation over punitive measures. It offers inmates a temporary "escape from the prison world" and a chance to engage with the community, explained Joe Satterfield, a prison case manager at South Central who oversees the program. To qualify for the group, an inmate cannot have any recent conduct violations on his record. "You can see a change in their attitude," said Satterfield. "A light flips on like, 'Oh, this is a new avenue. I can actually be a part of something.'"



"They especially love making something for kids who might have nothing," he explained. "Social service caseworkers in the area provide us with the kids' first names and birthdays, and the guys do the rest." Members of the prison quilting circle design each quilt with an individual child in mind, embroidering their first names on the corner. "You see the names of these kids in foster care; you see a 1-year-old or 2-year-old, and it kind of breaks your heart," said Rod Harney, one of the volunteers. "But that lets us know we’re human still. You can’t express enough how it feels to do it."



Harney, who said he learned to sew in his seventh-grade home economics class, recently wrapped up a quilt for an 18-year-old boy who will soon age out of the foster care system. He spent over 100 hours on it, edging the quilt in crushed velour and sewing on a grizzly bear that appears to be gazing through a window. Harney explained that he chose this specific design for the teen to show them that "the world is at your front door."



Most of the men in the program are fathers, Satterfield said, and many have personally experienced the uncertainty of growing up in foster care. "They can relate because they’ve been there," he said. "It gives them comfort and satisfaction to know that a quilt they've made is going to a child who may not get another birthday present. From start to finish, they have to see each quilt through. You can really see a change in attitude with the guys after they've been doing this a while. There's a sense of community and pride." The group also designs quilts that can be auctioned by local charities at fundraisers.



"Making birthday quilts for these kids is the most meaningful thing I've done since I've been in prison," said Brown. "It makes me feel better about why I'm here." Once a quilt is finished, it is packaged with a handmade hat, school supplies, and toiletries donated by other inmates at South Central. "For a foster child, they don't get a lot; they're in a home that may or may not really make them feel like part of the family," said Jim Williams, a member of the quilting circle. "So when I see this quilt laid out here on the table, I get emotional. I really do."

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