Sewing for Solace: Grad's love of quilting leads to nationwide program for children of deployed soldiers

Ann Flaherty made her first quilt to fulfill an art requirement at Norwich University’s Vermont College in the late 1990s. Or, as she puts it, “My first quilt was done so I could graduate--but I was hooked.” Little did she know that the creation of art quilts would become a lifelong avocation and the impetus for Operation Kid Comfort, a nationwide program that provides quilts and pillows to children whose parents are serving in the armed forces. What started as one quilt for Flaherty’s grandson has grown to thousands of custom handmade quilts and pillows for children all over the United States.

Three years ago, Flaherty’s grandson, 18-month-old Christian, was having a hard time. His father, Flaherty’s son-in-law, Mike, was serving as an army pilot in Iraq. Christian responded to Mike’s absence with tantrums, quiet periods and sleeping difficulties. He hoarded photos of his father and hid them under his crib.

Flaherty, who had used photo transfers on many of her previous quilts, decided to make Christian a “daddy quilt,” complete with photos of Christian and Mike playing together. Christian loved the quilt, carried it with him everywhere and seemed to calm down. Soon Flaherty began receiving requests from grandparents and parents to make their child a “daddy quilt” or a “mommy quilt.” This was the beginning of the non-profit organization, Operation Kid Comfort.

Flaherty was living in Braintree, Mass., with her husband, Steve, when she decided, at age 37, to pursue her degree from Vermont College. She had previously received an associate’s degree and worked in finance for several years, but she knew she didn’t want to stay there. “I’m just not a nine-to-five person. My mind goes in too many different directions." Flaherty finished in a year and a half, graduating in 1997.

In 1998 the Flahertys moved to Carolina Lakes, N.C., to be closer to their children. Their daughter, Kathleen, was stationed at Fort Bragg. Also nearby were Flaherty’s son, Mark, a Marine (at Camp LeJeune), and daughter Elisa, whose husband Mike was stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga.

Flaherty continued her quilt artistry full time, but as the word got out about the “daddy” and “mommy” quilts, their creation began to demand most of her time. And when the project grew from a few quilts for family and friends to literally hundreds of requests, Flaherty realized she needed help. She approached Lynne Grates, executive director of the Armed Services YMCA program at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C. “I didn’t want to start a non-profit organization on my own,” Flaherty said, “and I knew the Armed Forces YMCA had a long history of serving the military and military families. I knew it was the right place to go.”

“When she walked in the door with her ideas, I told her we could get a $10,000 grant for it right off the bat--and we did," Grates said. "Ann is really a visionary. She could see where this might go. And she doesn’t take no for an answer. She worked hard to get all the stuff donated that we needed to get started. If it wasn’t for Ann, the program would not have flourished. She was the catalyst.”

Operation Kid Comfort officially came into being on October 25, 2003, National “Make a Difference Day.” Since that time, more than 1500 quilts have been made by the more than 100 volunteers, most of them military wives. It is now housed in a special room at Fort Bragg, complete with nine computerized sewing machines, computers and printers, cutting tables and storage cabinets. Quilts are also being made at the national Armed Services YMCA headquarters in Alexandria, Va.; the San Diego Naval Base; Lowes YMCA in Charlotte, N.C.; and Fort Drum, near Watertown, N.Y.

Flaherty has only one stipulation for the quilts--that they not be treated as treasured family heirlooms. “These are not keepsakes,” she said, “not to hang on the wall. These are for the kids. They can drag them around, sleep with them, get them dirty.”

As Operation Kid Comfort flourished, Flaherty faced another challenge. In 2004, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and had three major surgeries in a year. Flaherty went from spending more than 40 hours a week at the Operation Kid Comfort workshop to showing up when she could. “One of my goals when establishing Operation Kid Comfort was to design a program that would stand on its own. When I was ill, it not only stood on its own, but continued to grow,” Flaherty said.

Now cancer free and well on the road to recovery, Flaherty gets to the Fort Bragg workshop once or twice a month. Most of her efforts go into publicity and fundraising for Operation Kid Comfort.

As the program she founded continues to expand, Flaherty says it is “so heartwarming to see something that came from my love for my grandchild going out to grandchildren all over the country. It’s all about finding what you love and sharing it. It’s so true that, when you give, you get back. What I get from this is just as important as what [the children] get."

Flaherty has some words of wisdom gleaned from her experiences. “If you have something that gives you even an inkling that it might be worthwhile, do it. You have no idea how many people it will affect. We all get little messages every day; listen to them!”

For more information on Operation Kid Comfort, go to www.operationkidcomfort.blogspot.com. For information about Ann Flaherty, go to www.annflaherty.blogspot.com.