While governments send diplomats around the world to negotiate treaties to end conflicts, peacemaking is being waged at the grassroots level. Through her nonprofit organization, Communities of Peace, activist Gerry Eitner has invited children around the world to express their thoughts about peace in a positive and creative way.
She has been working on a global quilting exchange, in which children add their own patchwork squares to an immense quilt, called the Children's Cloth of Many Colors.
Just as quilters sew together scraps of fabric from different sources into a pleasing design, Eitner says children from different nations can use fabrics and other materials to create a design expressing what peace means to them.
Their meter-square quilts are then stitched together into a colorful ribbon.
"It starts with children looking inside to find out what peace is for them," Eitner says."We don't want to tell them what to do. We want it to be creative. I think at this point, there are just under 400 pieces. Most of them are a yard square, but some of them are longer than that."
Eitner's Communities of Peace began the quilting exchange in 2000 as a way of building bridges among the world's children.
Expressing peace in a creative way
Twelve-year-old Alex Eberly and his younger siblings, Leah and Jacob, have been quilting bridges for five years.
"There are kids around the world who need peace, and they can use quilts to look at it in a new form," says Alex.
"I think it's crafty. It's fun. I just like it," Jacob adds.
The Eberlys have quilted more than a dozen squares. Once they finish a quilt, they start another with the help of their mother, Debbie Eberly.
"We've started another one here today that is going to be sent over in the spring to an orphanage in Nepal," she says. "I hope that the children at that orphanage will decorate the other half of the quilt that we've started today and, hopefully, that they'll send it back."
The Ethiopian project
Ten-year-old Nicole Arthaud says being a member of Communities of Peace gives her a chance to enjoy quilting while interacting with other kids, from her neighborhood and around the world.
"I helped out with the Ethiopian quilt, when we went to the embassy," she says. "It was really, like, fun because I met different kids from different places."
In that project, Nicole and several other American kids sewed one half of a quilt, while a group of Ethiopian children visiting the Washington, D.C., area worked on the other half. In the process, says Nicole's mother, Lisa Arthaud, the two groups acquired new skills and new friends.
"At first you [recognize] there are differences," she says. "The second part is, "Look at all the similarities!" That's what my daughters walked away with: Look at all the similarities. They had bonded. I think you can almost sense an energy of connectiveness between the kids, between the adults."
All contributions are welcomed
The Peace Quilt, as it's known, now stretches more than half a kilometer and has been displayed at the U.S. Capitol and at last year's United Nations Conference on Children and the Environment in Norway, among other places.
Schools, embassies, places of worship and community groups organize quilting projects, and Eitner says all of them are appreciated and welcomed.
"One of my favorites here is this section," she says. "It was made by the children in a homeless shelter here in Warrenton [Virginia]. These kids, at this point when they are homeless, they have next to nothing and they are feeling pretty bad about themselves. What they especially indicated that was special to them is that they were doing something small and individual, but that they would be connected with children all over the world. They felt important. They felt special because they were doing that."
Quilting to create future leaders
Quilting, Eitner says, can be the first step that leads those children to become more involved in world affairs when they grow up. Eighteen-year-old Henri Yount is an example. Yount joined Communities of Peace when he was 12. A couple of years ago, he was the group's delegate to a United Nations-sponsored conference on the environment.
"I met a lot of kids from different countries," he says. "There were some from Korea, different parts of India, Africa, some from Brazil and many different nations there. We did different workshops on how you can better the world through ecological ways. When I came back home, I started up a program on Facebook, which lets you communicate with people from different nations."
Eitner says the quilting exchange allows children from all over the world to work together to create something beautiful. She says she hopes those children will grow into proactive adults who will continue working together to create a more beautiful and peaceful world.