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Quilters patch together help for the homeless

When God told Pascha Griffiths to stop eating tortilla chips and start sewing quilts for the homeless, she listened.

"I know it sounds crazy," says the 34-year-old mother of two from Somerville, "but I was cleaning my kitchen one day, asking God what to do with my life. Then I heard a voice, or at least had a feeling, telling me to stop eating the tortilla chips I was eating."

Not only could she not get the notion out of her mind that she should stop eating them, but she also felt she was being told to spit out the chip she was chewing. So she did.

"Of course, I aimed for the trash, and I ended up spitting on the floor. At this point it was getting humiliating. I was like, 'God, I'm done with the tortilla chip game.' So I reached for a new roll of paper towels to clean up the mess and I looked up, saw the Bounty label, and then, in huge letters, 'Big Quilts!' Then it all made sense."

Soon after that autumn afternoon in 2005, she discussed the experience over dinner with her husband, Paul, and her most recent project, Beloved Quilts, was born. Griffiths, with the help of volunteers, plans to produce 100 blankets for Boston's homeless by December.

"I want to give my life in a way that, even if I can't finish it in a lifetime, I can at least do something that has a message and is something that inspires people and inspires people toward love," says Griffiths.

She has taken the mission to heart, making sure that love is a part of her quilting project by sewing it into each blanket -- literally. The word "beloved" is emblazoned across the center of each of them.

"I had double hopes for it," she says. "One is for the person receiving the quilt to stay warm and feel loved, but it's also for people walking by who see them to be affected by this act of giving."

The first batch of center squares, the 40- by 40-inch portion of the quilt containing the signature "beloved," were completed about a year ago at a women's retreat at Griffiths's church, the Greater Boston Vineyard in Cambridge. From those initial 18, word about the project started to spread, and soon Griffiths was being asked to host private parties in people's homes.

Griffiths compares the project to Mary Kay makeup parties, where entering one person's home often leads the host to the doorstep of another - such as the craft night that brought her to a slumber party that took her to a 4-H group and soon saw her as the center of a stranger's birthday bash.

"It definitely has a life of its own," she says. "Anyone can do it because it's geared toward the really basic. If you can cut with scissors and you know how to spell, you can do it. And it's really fun."

Since an average quilt requires several days and quilters, Griffiths relies on an assembly line of volunteers, some who stitch together entire quilts and others who never pick up a needle. The first step is a quilt-in, where volunteers cut out the seven press-on letters and stick them to the center square using an iron. These squares are later transported to a sew-in, where women stitch the pieces of prepared fabric together into twin-size bed quilts, backed with fleece donated by Malden Mills in Lawrence. Griffiths organizes one sew-in each month, the first of which was held in January at Greater Boston Vineyard.

"That first sew-in was a really powerful experience," says Arden O'Donnell of Jamaica Plain, a longtime friend and board member of Griffiths's nonprofit. "I walked into this room in the basement of the church and saw 10 women behind sewing machines, working together, talking, and sharing stories."

Griffiths says the project is moving along steadily with about 50 finished quilts so far.

Seventeen were recently donated to the Elizabeth Stone House, a shelter for battered women in Jamaica Plain, as an emergency contribution after an Aug. 7 fire that displaced its residents.

"There aren't really any words to describe how people have been there for us," says Marcia Gordon, volunteer intern coordinator at the Stone House. "Specifically with Beloved Quilts, because they were made for individuals, and that's special. I think that's really important because often where these women are from, they don't feel important."

Griffiths plans to showcase the remaining completed quilts in public spaces all over Boston starting this month. Local venues, such as Boloco restaurant in Davis Square, have agreed to hang the quilts, providing art with an altruistic twist for patrons. Upon the target date in December, all of the blankets will be displayed at Greater Boston Vineyard before being donated. The first batch will go to the Somerville Homeless Coalition, in gratitude to the Somerville Arts Council, which granted Griffiths $1,000 to start the project. Other potential recipients include the Cambridge Family and Children's Service, a nonprofit that works with foster children, and women's shelters and homeless sanctuaries in Greater Boston.

"It's very important to me that the quilts don't belong to the bed or the shelter," says Griffiths. "The person may receive it there, but it's theirs to keep."

Because each quilt is made from hand-me-downs and donations, stitched together by a variety of hands, each is unique.

"It's not like, 'Oh, we're saving the world,' or anything like that," says Griffiths. "It's more an interest in giving and how generosity changes others and you."

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