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Virginia Quilt Commemorates Victims of Abusive Relationships - 2002-10-19

Quilting is a time-honored craft most often linked to the comforts of home and family. But a huge quilt about to go on display in Richmond, Virginia calls attention to a darker side of domestic life. It's been put together by victims of domestic violence throughout the state, and it's being unveiled on Friday at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

Sheila Mandt suffered through a long, abusive relationship with a former boyfriend. She eventually ended the relationship, married someone else, and now works as director of development for the Salvation Army in Richmond. But she was so haunted by memories of that abuse that she decided to do something to call attention to the problem of domestic violence.

Although she'd never made a quilt before, that seemed like an ideal way to advance her cause. "I wanted to do something that would enable anybody to participate, regardless of what their skill level was," said Sheila Mandt. "I wanted something that was easy for someone to do, and that didn't cost a lot of money, because many people in shelters are in financial constraints. And I wanted something that would offer the opportunity to express themselves and their experience creatively. I thought of photographs, but then realized that if someone didn't have a camera or wasn't comfortable taking pictures that would be difficult. I thought of people writing poems or stories, but I know many people remain anonymous in their situations. So I wanted to give them something they could do on their own but not have to release who they were."

Sheila Mandt contacted 68 Virginia shelters for victims of domestic abuse and invited them to join the quilting project. She got responses from all kinds of people. "The range is endless," she said. "It covers every racial and economic boundary that exists - black, white, Asian, rich, poor. I've heard stories from girls in high school and grade school that are being abused by boys they go to school with. We have a panel from a woman who is 72-years-old and was thrown out of a second story window and stabbed by her husband, who was a minister. We have a panel from a man who was abused by his wife. There really is no stereotype. And that is the overall goal of the project, to show that this issue can touch anybody."

The patches are equally diverse, says Sheila Mandt. "One panel here is green, and it's little bunny rabbits, and it's corded in a yellow ribbon," she said. "And there's a name on it, Patricia Anderson Morse. It has her date of birth, 7.7.1960 and her date of death, 6.9.2000. This is a woman who was murdered by her boyfriend two years ago, and her sister has contributed this panel in her memory.

Some are very simplistic, and often those are ones that have been made by children and they have handprints or pictures of the sun or little flowers on them. Others have poems. One is an amazing one that has a drawing of an eye, and it says, 'I inherited my blue eyes from my parent and got my black eye from my husband.' We have one that is a completely blank panel. The woman who contributed that is living in an abusive relationship, didn't want to put anything on it, and wanted to contribute a panel in honor of all the thousands of people who are anonymous in their relationships."

Some abused women made it a point not to be anonymous. Chelsea Kazmier is a family violence counselor in Richmond. She watched one woman make an especially memorable panel. "She actually listed the names of her children and their ages, and brought in the fact that not only had she been victimized, but her children had been exposed to this violence in the home as well," said Chelsea Kazmier.

Chelsea Kazmier runs weekly support groups for abused women at Richmond-area shelters, and the quilting project became part of those weekly meetings. She says the response was enthusiastic. "The women seemed to feel really good about participating, really seemed to feel they were helping bring awareness to the community," she said. "It's a huge societal problem. It happens a lot more often than I think we'd like to admit as a society. Our shelters are always full. We get thousands of hotline calls every year from women who've experienced family violence. And I think this gives the women a chance to have their voices heard, and it makes it seem more personal that these squares are created by people who've experienced family violence. And when we put them all together it helps us realize what a huge problem this is."

The finished quilt is about 45 meters long and four meters wide. After the official unveiling, it will be displayed at the state capitol and business complexes around Richmond. It will then be divided into 14 smaller quilts. Sheila Mandt says she hopes to hang those fragments at corporate offices across the state of Virginia. "I didn't want the quilt to hang in a shelter or a church or a community center, only because those are environments where people typically understand what domestic violence is," said Sheila Mandt. "I really wanted it to be in a corporation, where people aren't aware of what the situation is and are forced to look at it and look at their colleagues and their peers and wonder and offer help to those who are suffering from it."

American actress Sissy Spacek and Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore are serving as honorary co-chairs of the quilting project. Sheila Mandt says she hopes the publicity the project is attracting will encourage other states to launch similar efforts. She believes that, whether out of fear or shame, victims of domestic violence too often remain silent about their experiences. Making a quilt gives them a safe and anonymous way to express their emotions.