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Wilsonville resident's dream of spreading kindness with quilts continues

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: CLAIRE COLBY - Tool clerk Kimberly Price and volunteer and class leader Peggy Gelberich check in and count all the the tools used during the class.

Tables overflowing with fabric and notions are pushed around the visitor’s room at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility by inmates participating in the Coffee Creek Quilters program. Starting out as the brainchild of longtime Wilsonville resident Colleen “Koko” Sutton with only two instructors, the program has now blossomed into four classes a week with nearly 80 participants. Now in the program’s 14th year, a new crop of local volunteers and inmates are keeping the program alive and growing.

The program dates back to slightly before Coffee Creek Correctional Facility opened in 2002. At a presentation given at St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Wilsonville, attendees were asked to volunteer their time to teach a hobby to incarcerated women at the newly constructed facility. Sutton, an active member of the church and an avid quilter, stepped up with the idea to create a quilting program. Backed with donations from the church, Sutton set off to buy six sets of sewing machines, tools and supplies that she would need to get the program off the ground. Ray Landis, owner of the Sewing Center West in Beaverton, was intrigued with the notion of the program and cut Sutton a deal for the equipment at cost. As the program grew, more donors from within the quilting community — encouraged by flyers that Landis handed out at his store — and from around the metro area started to contribute to the cause.

Before Sutton died in 2009, she handed the reins off to Martha Messa. Having been an instructor since 2005, Newberg resident Messa says that she was inspired to get involved when she read about the program in the Oregonian. After reaching out to Sutton Messa says that she went to a class and never left the program. Since taking over from Sutton, Messa hasn’t treated her position as program coordinator from a 10,000-foot perspective but rather has been intimately involved with the classes.

During each class, inmates grab their patterns, fabric and tools and hunker down for two hours crafting their quilts. Since the program’s inception, women participating make three quilts — the first two to donate and the third to keep either for themselves or to give as a gift. Some of the CCQ quilt recipients include Emanuel, Good Samaritan, Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, Meridian Park, Providence Elder Place, Salud Medical Center and Camp Erin — a part of Providence Health & Services that offers week-long, free bereavement camps in the country designed for children and teens who have experienced the death of a loved one.

Despite being housed in the minimum security section of the prison, instructors take no chances. All potentially dangerous items, from pins to scissors, are cataloged and stored on shadow boards in a supplies closet to be checked out for use. Checkouts are handled by an inmate tool clerk and supervised by the lead instructor of the day. But because of the program’s popularity and the waiting list to get into the classes, participants say they aren’t interested in running the risk of being thrown out by breaking the rules.SPOKESMAN PHOTO: CLAIRE COLBY - Program participant Evita Lopez said that quilting has positively changed her life and that she hopes to continue quilting even after she is released.

“Here, they actually call me Evita and it’s so refreshing,” says inmate Evita Lopez. “It’s like Groundhog Day in here until Tuesday when we get to come back.”

Now working on her second quilt — a baby-themed quilt with polka dots and pastel colors — Lopez is excited to get started on her third quilt for her 13-year-old son, Anthony. “It’ll have a sports theme,” Lopez says. With her release on the horizon, she is looking forward to continuing to quilt on the outside when she leaves. Earned upon completing the program and making a request, former participants can receive a “release kit,” comprised of quilting essentials as well as a sewing machine. Lopez’s face lit up while talking about the release kit. “I can’t wait to get my own sewing machine!” Lopez says.

Messa says that Lopez’s reaction to the program isn’t a unique one.

“Students are generally very outspoken about their appreciation for our coming into the prison voluntarily, consistently and enthusiastically,” says Messa. “Comments have included: ‘You’re a breath of fresh air. I love coming to class each week,’ ‘Your program is such a blessing to me. You women are absolutely amazing,’ ‘Thank you for your time and for believing in me,’ ‘I’ve never made anything to give to someone before this class’ and ‘My mother is going to be really proud of me.’”

It’s these moments of personal growth and change that Messa and the other volunteers from around the metro area say makes the experience all the more amazing for them. But Messa says that quilting can be life-changing even for the unincarcerated.

“It keeps me out of the saloons and casinos!” Messa says with a laugh. “I began quilting in 2002 and haven’t been able to quit. It’s a positive addiction.”

Messa encourages those interested in volunteering to arrange to visit a class. Or, for those not wanting to physically come into the prison, there is plenty of outside legwork needed, such as sorting donated fabric, patterns and storing donations after they’ve been sorted.

But according to volunteer and class leader Peggy Gelberich from Yamhill, at the end of the day, it’s the face-to-face interactions between volunteers and inmates that makes the biggest impact. “This is two hours a week that they said that they feel like they’re regular people,” Gelberich says. “That’s special.”

Contact Claire Colby at 503-636-1281 ext. 113 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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