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One Stitch at a time

(Tribune correspondent)
by ESTHER HAMMER
Updated: Jan 12th 2004

Thursday October 23, 2003

Section BAYLIFE

Page 1

One Stitch at a Time

ESTHER HAMMER

Tribune correspondent

People with several anxiety or other mental health problems find that quilting helps them focus on the positive.

TAMPA - Choose the fabrics - bright colors or contrasting hues that evoke happy or calm feelings.

Carefully cut the pieces. Thread the needle; make tiny stitches. Watch with delight as the pattern takes shape. Finish and - voila! - It's a work of art that's also a warm embrace.

The creative precision of quilting can be balm for an anguished soul.

"It gives me something to concentrate on other than what's going on in my head and all the stress going on around me," says Mary, 38, finishing her first quilt at Mental Health Care Inc.'s Violet Street drop-in center.

Mary and the center's 20 or so other quilters - whose last names are being withheld at the request of the care giving agency - struggle daily with tormenting thoughts or panic-inducing anxiety. They've found that quilting forces some of those thoughts to retreat as they focus on the tasks at hand and discover the camaraderie of old-fashioned quilting bees.

"It reminds people of things they did when they were younger," says Denise Chavez, the program's facilitator. "When they are quilting, they talk about their youth, their families and what they did."

The facility, at 2313 W. Violet St., is one of 34 outreach centers operated by Mental Health Care, a local nonprofit agency. It provides outpatient services, such as offering counseling and dispensing medications, and creative activities, such as silk painting.

"Right now, I think the quilting is the thing that has caught on the best," says Sandra Tabor, spokeswoman for Mental Health Care.

Goals Find a Home

The program began in July 2002 when Chavez, a Tampa native with a fine arts degree, decided she had to get involved in the community and to teach expressive arts.

The two ambitions found a natural home at Mental Health Care, where she was hired as an expressive arts facilitator.

"It was a good fit for the organization," Tabor says. "It was a natural evolution in what we were trying to do, in building the self-esteem of the people we serve."

Chavez started her quilting class with two students, and the numbers quickly grew.

Soon, she had more quilters than she could adequately tend to, what with all the careful piecework. By then, news of her popular class had reached The Quilting Sampler, a south Tampa shop. Co-owners Mischele Hart and Adrienne Tavares decided - independent of each other - to look into helping out.

"It was uncanny how we both felt like it was the right thing to do," Hart says.

The store donates basic quilting supplies and materials, and the owners donate their time.

Once a week, Hart and Tavares teach the basics.

"They've made some gorgeous quilts already," Hart says. "We're just going to help them improve their skills."

The Sounds of Quilting

On a recent visit to the center, 20 student quilters work under the guidance of Chavez, Hart and Tavares. The sounds of their labors are punctuated by conversation and laughter.

Nancy, 58, has been quilting for a year at the center. She has completed two lap-size works and helped make three group quilts. Now she's working on "A Pickle Dish," sort of a double wedding-ring pattern.

"It was listed as one of the hardest quilts to do. It's really time-consuming," she says.

Joseph, 19, who has been going to the center for about a year, is sewing together triangles in many colors, the beginning of a pinwheel quilt. He started it in the summer and chose summer colors, so he calls it "A Summer Solstice Quilt."

Chavez says the quilts have grown more complex and detailed with the help of her two volunteers. While that makes her feel good, she has bigger goals.

"It is to get self-assurance, a sense of accomplishment and a sense of self-worth," she says.

And that's happening, says Lorelie S. Nixon, a program manager at Violet Street. The quilters are socializing; they're not focusing on negative or distracting thoughts. They're doing something productive and making friends.

"Our goal is to keep them out of the hospital," says Lori L. Ogle, director of adult services at Violet Street. "And this program helps do that. They're engaged now, and they're invested [in the program], and that's what we want to do."

The big payoff comes when someone gets back to a productive life in the community.

As a symbol and a reminder of that kind of health, a table painted by a homeless man who was in the expressive arts programs three or four months ago sits in the middle of the center. The man now does refinishing work and faux painting for a business in Tampa.

"It's an example of what people can do if given the right setting and the right motivation," Tabor says.

The quilting classes, she says, provide both.

"It's almost like being to church," Hart says. "You feel good when you leave."

For information or to contribute time, money or supplies, call Tabor at (813) 272-2878, Ext. 291.

Correspondent Esther Hammer can be reached at (813) 835-2108.

KEYWORD QUILTING MENTAL HEALTH

Copyright 2003, The Tampa Tribune and may not be republished without permission. E-mail library@tampatrib.com