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OUR COMMUNITY: Volunteer quilter Elly Van Oenen

Elly Van Oenen uses recycled fabric to create more than 100 quilts per year and donate them to Ukranians in need.
Elly Van Oenen displays a few of the 325 quilts that she's made and donated to the Ukraine.

You might guess that a woman who donates 100+ quilts per year would have an ample personal collection as well, but instead she keeps only one. "It was the first one I ever made," Elly explains, and it is the only one that she calls her own.

Elly Van Oenen, a retired children's clothing maker, crafted her first quilt at age 65. Little did she know that her quilts would soon end up in the thankful hands of hundreds of people in need, on the other side of the world.

Elly had always been troubled by images she'd seen of orphaned Ukranian children in steel cribs, without blankets to keep warm. When she moved to Chilliwack in 2011, Elly was in search of a way to get her quilts to to help these people, and it it wasn't long before she found it.

With transportation help from Nel Neef, also from Chilliwack, the quilts, along with piles of donated clothing, shoes and other textiles are brought to Bellingham Slavic Gospel Church. "The women there are so happy when we bring them in," Elly explains proudly "and it's a joy every time I pass them along".

From there, volunteers package and ship boxes of donations to Moldova in the Ukraine, where the items are then safely distributed to churches, orphanages, and nursing homes where people are in need.

Elly receives recycled fabric donations from many sources, "we can use everything" she says. Retired quilters provide their unused materials, mothers bring second-hand clothes to the church, and she even takes in curtains and bumper pads to add to the stockpiles in her closets.

After a wash and an iron, Elly organizes all the fabric into bundles, which will soon be transformed into a quilts.

Elly with quilts to donateOn her own, Elly has made and donated 325 quilts in the past 3 years. Her quilting partner, Greta Beekman, has also generously contributed 100 quilts to this altruistic cause. "It's my hobby too, so I love it" Elly explains, "especially when you know that this is going to people who will get so much joy and warmth out of it"

Depending on the size, "it takes about 3 days to create one quilt, working 7 hours per day," Elly explains. She often quilts for 6 days per week. "But I don't do it alone" she is quick to point out, "there are many people who donate time and fabric."

The days where she isn't quilting are often filled with birthday parties and family events for her 25 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren, many of whom Elly has taught to sew as well.

Perhaps the most rewarding moment for Elly is when she and Nel receive thank you letters and photographs from those they've helped in the Ukraine. "I am so thankful that I've found a way to get the quilts to the children in east Ukraine. We have so much and they have so little."