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A Unique Quilt Promotes Healing for Incarcerated Women in Recovery

Minimum Security inmate Tina was in the prison library contemplating a theme for a recovery quilt she and others in the Providence Center's substance abuse treatment program had been asked to work on when she noticed a book on the floor about butterflies and another on the shelf about insects. "It hit me," she reflects, "that we are a lot like butterflies. Every one of us has a different story – no two are alike, and we go through a process of transformation, much like the caterpillar to the butterfly."

Tina set out to find someone who could sketch her idea and ironically found that person in her dorm mate, Renee. "I love mixing art and poetry," says Renee, who created a sketch for the quilt's center square featuring a "recovery house." Individually hand made green caterpillars have since been sewn to the quilt, climbing up to the center panel. Hand sewn and colored butterflies are affixed to the top of the quilt, representing the women who have left the facility or will be soon and are now in recovery.

Tina and Renee are just two of the many women who had a hand in creating the intricate quilt. Originally, the Providence Center approached the women's facility about providing just the center square and surrounding it with squares the Center would provide made by women in recovery in the community. Once Tina and Renee got their idea and ran with it, however, they wanted to do much more, and the project took on a life of its own.

The top and bottom three rows of the quilt were made by women in the community and the rest by women in the ACI. Each square tells a story – some are original poems, others are tributes to a lost loved one, a few are poems taken from butterfly magazines, and one or two include a simple phrase such as "One Day at a Time."

The quilt took hundreds of hours to complete and dozens of women participated in creating it, though Tina did most of the sewing and Renee most of the artwork. Women who were only doing short bids and/or who felt they had no real artistic talent were asked to simply color a butterfly. "It made sense," says Tina, "that the butterflies were made by the women who were on their way out, who had already gone through treatment or were ready to spread their wings on the outside." There was something everyone could do – whether it was writing the words to a poem in fabric paint, stapling objects to the quilt, or creating their own square.

One of the things that most moved Tina about her involvement with the quilt is the fact that so many women participated, including women on the outside whom the women behind the walls had never met. "We don't even know each other," she shares, "yet we all have something in common."

For Renee, the project brought healing after the loss of a loved one. "I was grieving when I came in here," she reflects. "Working on the quilt was therapeutic. "We poured our hearts into it."

The women who worked on the quilt participated in the Providence Center's two-month substance abuse treatment program, spending an hour after the daily class working on the quilt. Additional "free time" was spent sewing the quilt by hand. Says Tina, "It was amazing to see it coming together each week."

Because they are in a prison, the women were supplied with very few materials to utilize in creating the quilt. Originally they got a package of needles and two spools of thread from the Providence Center and were told they could just glue the squares together. Once they got involved, however, they wanted to do more than that. While Tina has limited experience with sewing, she had never done any quilting before this project. Eventually some fabric paint was donated, but it could only be used during class time for security reasons. When it became apparent that the women had plans beyond just creating the center square, the Providence Center provided some plain felt squares. Institutional Chaplain Joy Johnson, who heads up the Dolls for Charity program, donated print fabric and batting for the quilting. The women got creative and cut up green prison T-shirts (which they purchase from the Commissary) to make the hand sewn caterpillars and used sheets for the original squares.

The women describe the process of creating the quilt not only as healing, but also relaxing. "I'm a wife and mother of four children," notes Tina. "On the outside, there is no time to sew. In here, I had the time. It allowed my mind to stop spinning," she adds.

In addition to the large quilt, a smaller memorial quilt has been made so the women who came in after the larger project began in June would have a chance to participate before the kickoff. Each contributor to the "memorial panel" wrote a tribute to someone who has passed due to substance abuse.

The women were pleased to learn that their quilt will travel nationally with the Recovery Rallies after its debut at the kickoff event for this year's rallies behind the walls of the ACI on Friday, August 31st at 10 a.m. "This quilt is a huge part of what I've been going through," reflects Renee. "It will always remind me of what recovery means and how everyone has their own story and we all have different reasons for going through recovery."

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