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Quilting group brings parents together to talk school, kids

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Saturday May 12, 2001

The huge galaxy of volunteer committees that serve Berkeley public schools give parents a chance to bring professional expertise to bear on a baffling range of problems.  

Computer gurus keep computer labs running, botanists help maintain school gardens, artists recruit talent for school assemblies, CPAs help oversee the district’s budgeting process.  

The PTA, the mightiest committee of all, dabbles a bit in everything. 

But where would the PTA committees be without the quilters – that small group of parents that come together at the beginning of each school year to choose fabric and patterns for a school quilt to be raffled off at a spring carnival. 

At Jefferson elementary school, where the quilting tradition goes back so far that 10-year veterans can’t recall its origins, a quilt whose raw materials cost about $5 helped raise more than $5,000 for the school’s PTA last year.  

Over the years, John Muir, Thousand Oaks and Cragmont and other Berkeley Schools have adopted the tradition of raffling quilts to raise money each spring as well.  

This year Jefferson PTA President Matthew Wong expects the school’s quilt to be one of the biggest enticements – right up there with the tickets to Disneyland – for people to snatch up the schools raffle tickets. 

But more than just a fund raising mechanism, the Jefferson quilt is literally part of the fabric of the school. It is a way for parents without the time or the taste for PTA meetings to come together, share ideas and demonstrate support for their children’s school. 

“PTA meetings are not as fun as the quilting circle,” said Melissa Quilter (yes, that’s her real name), a driving force behind the Jefferson quilt for the last nine years. “It builds community, allows for connections to get built.” 

Carrie Blake, a 10-year veteran of the Jefferson quilting effort until her youngest child moved on to middle school last year, agreed. 

“It’s low key,” Blake said. “It was kind of a way for me to introduce myself that didn’t require me to be on a big committee where I had to talk a lot.” 

At Jefferson, Quilter and other experienced quilters gather the various fabric pieces for the quilt into piles and assign one student responsibility for sewing each foot-wide square – usually with the help of a parent or grand parent. Later parents gather in the evening at Jefferson to complete the careful work of hand stitching all the squares together into a quilt. These are the members of the so-called “quilting circle.” 

Parents who pick their children up at school are, Quilter said, “invited to come early and stay late and really spend time at the school. It’s a forum to discuss school issue, neighborhood issues, etc.” 

“We kind of had our own PTA,” Blake said. “We’d assess teachers, swap stories, talk about what we thought students should be doing.” 

It was a fun and welcoming environment for parents, Blake said, with more than a hint of nostalgia in her voice. One of Blake’s children is a student at Berkeley High School today, a place where Blake said she has yet to figure out how to become involved in school activities.  

“My child is totally against me setting foot on campus,” she joked.  

The Jefferson quilts are typically finished in early April, in time to be part of annual exhibition of locally made quilts at the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library.  

For those interested in seeing the 60 quilts on display this year, today is your last chance. The quilts come down Monday. The North Branch library, located at 1170 The Alameda, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. 

But the quilts on display, to the dismay of many visitors, are not for sale. If you want a shot at winning one of the elementary school quilts, pick up a raffle ticket at the Jefferson May Fair, today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Jefferson School, 1400 Ada Street; or at Cragmont’s Spring Carnival Day, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, at Cragmont School, 830 Regal Road.