Published On: Thu, Sep 19th, 2013

Freedom quilt keeps brother’s memory alive


LAUREL — It took almost four years, but Shirley Haase has a Freedom Quilt that brings back memories of her brother, Don Grella.

The process began when members of the Laurel VFW Auxiliary learned that Betty Nielsen of Fonda, Iowa, made quilts for fallen service personnel.

After Grella’s remains had been buried in Laurel, the Auxiliary women decided to contact Nielsen to see if she would make a quilt for his family. She agreed to do it, even though, up until that time, she only made quilts for those from current conflicts.

“To date, ours is the only quilt she has made for anyone from a past conflict,” said Haase.

Nielsen makes quilts as part of her ongoing effort to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country.  She began her project, “Freedom Quilts”, after 9/11 to honor those who lost their lives at the World Trade Center.

She continued to make them to comfort families whose loved ones did not return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Haase explained that many of the quilts are simple, with the center block containing the name, rank, branch of service, and date of death.  However, if the family provides her with photos and additional information she personalizes the quilt as she did for the Haases.

“It is a long process to make a quilt,” said Haase, “First she decides what she wants to include on the quilt.  Then her husband machine embroiders blocks to use.  Betty then chooses the layout of the blocks and her volunteers sew the pieces together.  Once the quilt top in complete, her husband machine quilts the finished product.”

She drove to Fonda to tell Don’s story and share her memories of him and sent photos, as well as some of his military patches to be included in the project.

She and her husband, along with four other families, officially received their quilts at the Nielsen farm on April 6, 2013, after being escorted from Storm Lake by the Patriot Guard and Legion Riders.

“Betty and her husband planned a very moving program where she shared each family’s history before the presentation of each quilt.” Haase said.

She expressed gratitude to the Nielsens for their effort to comfort families experiencing a loss,  “We family members live this because we have to, but Betty and Dennis and the volunteers live it because they choose to.”

When Nielsen began her project in 2011, she used space at her church, but soon outgrew the space, so the Nielsens built a large shop on their farm where she, her husband and volunteers create the quilts.

Since 9/11, they have made and presented over 7,300 quilts, which are made by volunteers and solely funded by donations.