Susan Tonry’s three-year struggle with leukemia, including a marrow transplant, not only restored her to good health, but it spawned Quilts for Comfort, a dedicated group of women who create quilts donated to people facing long-term hospitalizations for blood cancer treatment. They quilt together on the first and third Thursday’s of the month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the historic Robbins House.
In 2009, while Tonry was undergoing a lengthy hospitalization for leukemia, her mother brought in pink towels and placemats and put silly Valentine decorations on the walls to make it easier for Tonry’s kids, then 12, 10 and 6. In response, Tonry began declaring a color of the month from her hospital bed, via her Caring Bridge site. As she changed the site’s color theme monthly, she suggested that everyone sport that color, for example, “It’s February, let’s all wear pink [in honor of Valentine’s Day].” Green followed for March (in honor of St. Patrick’s Day), then purple (in honor of Easter), and finally yellow as her treatments were wrapping up because it is Tonry’s “happy color.”
Those colors morphed into the idea of making 40 quilts by the time she turned 40 because “I was so grateful to be alive.”
“I was going to give them to patients at Robert Wood Johnson in New Brunswick; there were a lot of patients who didn’t have families or a lot of visitors, and I wanted to brighten up their rooms,” she said.
Before returning to work at the New Jersey Health Care Facilities Financing Authority in Trenton, she decided to take two quilting classes at Stony Brook Sew & Vac in Bordentown. She was hooked.
She got a space to work every Wednesday until her birthday, and invited her friends to help. To the people who told her it was impossible to make 40 quilts, she responded, “Watch me!” She ended up delivering 60 quilts to the hospital.
The day she did the delivery, she had a doctor’s appointment first, and the doctor had bad news for her: the leukemia had returned. She got permission to deliver her quilts first, then settled in for another of many biopsies.
In the months following, she received a bone marrow transplant from a college student out west named Dominique who matched her genetic profile.
The experience has led Tonry to take no day for granted, and she’s cautious to assume anything. When asked if she’s been given a clean bill of health, she hedges.
“I suppose so,” she said.
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For several years, Quilts for Comfort met at the Robbinsville library, which meant a lot of schlepping. Tonry stored everything in her basement, and she would bring everything up the stairs, out the door, and into the car each time the group gathered—ironing boards, irons, sewing machines, and fabric. Then, after the session, she’d take it all home again. Volunteers had to lug their own sewing machines and supplies as well.
But then Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried stepped in two years ago to find a permanent place for Quilts for Comfort on the second floor of the historic Robbins House.
Fried brought in engineers, who walked through the house with Tonry, as she told them what she would need: a carpet over the old floors so that pins wouldn’t fall through to the floor below, upgraded lighting, a cutting counter, and a big washer and dryer, as the quilts had to be cleaned prior to delivery to immuno-compromised patients. To support these renovations, Fried donated the funds from that year’s “Pay it Forward” fundraising event, a tradition he has developed around his State of the Township address each year. Residents buy tickets to a dinner, and the proceeds are used to help a worthy individual or organization in town. The first year the proceeds went to purchase a handicap-accessible van for a family with a disabled child, and the second year they went to Quilts for Comfort.
The town used those funds as well as some historic restoration funds to finish the house renovations. The balance was given to Quilts for Comfort, who used the money to buy six sewing stations and sewing machines as well as cabinetry to store bolts of fabric.
Most of the fabrics, Tonry says, come from “quilters who are cleaning out their stash” and also fabric donations from friends. They accept cotton fabrics appropriate for quilting; they prefer at least a yard, but will accept fat quarters and other pieces less than one yard, but they must be measured in advance of donation (half yard, three-quarters yard etc.). They will also accept cash donations and donations of cotton or cotton/poly blend batting.
The quilters share the house with a photography teacher, the recreation department’s summer camp, Boy and Girl Scouts, and others in the township.
“It’s nice not having it all in my home and having to drag everything up and down the stairs and in and out of the library,” Tonry said. “I am very grateful to the staff at the Robbinsville Library who gave us a place to start this mission and to grow to where we are today. Having a place to really call home is a dream come true.”
The group’s mission has expanded to include other charitable organizations and sewing projects. For Stockings for Soldiers in Delaware the women sewed holiday stockings that volunteers in Delaware filled with items needed by soldiers, like shaving cream, socks, deodorant, and toothbrushes. They also were selected by Turtle Creek Quilters Guild of Hamilton to be their charity of the year.
Two years ago, the One Million Pillow Case Challenge got the benefit of their skills. Quilts for Comfort signed up as a designated spot for people to come to make as many pillow cases as they could in 24 hours, and donated the cases to Womanspace, which serves individuals and families affected by domestic and sexual violence.
And they don’t waste anything. The scraps they can’t use, they put in pillow cases and make dog beds for the Burlington County Animal Shelter.
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For the women who are involved in Quilts for Comfort, their biweekly quilting sessions have been an opportunity for friendship, inspiration, and giving back to the community. Often the 10 or so regulars take fabric with them to continue their work at home.
Mary Sobon of Florence heard about Quilts for Comfort on Facebook from a friend in Florida who keeps up with Robbinsville news. Forty years ago, Sobon learned to hand quilt at an Allentown class; she made one quilt for herself and two for her church to raffle off, then put the craft on the back burner until she joined up with Quilts for Comfort.
‘It was my therapy to leave a legacy for my children.’
Janet Everett of Hamilton found Quilts for Comfort in a newspaper article.
“It caught my eye because it had the word ‘leukemia,’ and I had lost a 6-year-old daughter to leukemia,” she says. Everett had been active in fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and a participant in their Light the Night walk.
What is especially meaningful to Everett, she says, “is the fact that I can give back” and that “I have been able to give a couple quilts to people with similar illnesses to my daughter.” She also gave one to an extended family member with a rare cancer.
“I know what a struggle it is for people who go through this,” Everett says. “I can say, ‘Been there. Done that.’”
Everett came to the group as a sewer who had never quilted, but the women are always helping each other out.
“Our group started with a whole lot of people who had never sewn,” Tonry says. “As we went along, we learned from each other. When we get a new person, we teach that person as a group.”
Betty Jones had been sewing since she was a young girl, but had not quilted when she joined Tonry’s group about 10 years ago. But she had quilting in her blood. Her great-grandmother was a quilter for a living, in the late 1800s in Jackson, Ohio.
Quilting as a way of charitable giving has spread to other parts of Jones’s life. As part of Eastern Star, the women’s wing of the Masons, Jones taught quilting as part of a project to make quilts for children in need of emergency and respite care. Jones also made a quilt for a girl in her extended family with Down’s syndrome.
The charitable activities inspired by Tonry’s illness have spread beyond Quilts for Comfort. While she was sick, Tonry remembers friends asking her what they could do for her, and she would respond, “You can pray.” But her friend Roseanne, who knew Tonry was getting lots of blood and platelet transfusions, asked her, “What if I held a blood drive?” Over six years they did 12 blood drives, with quilts on display, at Pond Road Middle School and the Robbinsville Senior Center.
For Tonry, who says she still lives one day at a time, Quilts for Comfort has had great personal meaning for her.
“It was my therapy,” she says, adding that it is a way “to leave a legacy for my children.”