BUN­DLES OF JOY

Five years ago ex-ser­vice­woman Jan-Ma­ree Ball started mak­ing laun­dry bags for our over­seas troops. That has now grown into the Aussie Hero Quilt or­gan­i­sa­tion, whose 250 vol­un­teers send per­son­alised laun­dry bags and quilts to our home­sick over­seas ser­vicem

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It’s enough to touch the heart of even the most bat­tle-hard­ened war­rior. The ar­rival at Australian De­fence Force bases over­seas of a quilt and a laun­dry bag, hand­made and per­son­alised for each re­cip­i­ent by vol­un­teers back home, is greeted with whoops of joy and ap­pre­ci­a­tion. The first thing they see when they open the box is a la­bel that reads: “This is an Aussie Hero Quilt made for an Aussie Hero, with grat­i­tude for your ser­vice”.

Some­one, whom they’ve never met, has spent hours, or, in the case of a quilt, days or weeks on a gift that speaks po­tently of home. Some­one who un­der­stands that there is a personal cost to the sol­diers, sailors and air­men and women who are de­ployed over­seas, and who wants to say thank you. And ev­ery day, whether they’re stuff­ing their clothes into their per­son­alised laun­dry bag, se­cure in the knowl­edge that there’ll be none of the in­evitable mix-ups when the wash­ing comes back, or snug­gling un­der their quilt, they are re­minded of this fact.

As one Army Chap­lain wrote to Jan-Ma­ree Ball, the founder of Aussie Hero Quilts: “What you and your team do makes a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to how our peo­ple are able to en­dure their time on op­er­a­tions.”

Ball, who started her com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tion five years ago from her house in sub­ur­ban Sydney, has be­come some­thing of a legend in the Armed Forces. The grate­ful troops have told her, in the thou­sands of mes­sages of thanks sent to her and her quil­ters, that re­ceiv­ing a par­cel from Aussie Heroes has be­come a rite of pas­sage for those serv­ing over­seas.

“I knew it would grow, and I knew it would be pop­u­lar but I didn’t un­der­stand how much it would mean to the troops,” says Ball, speak­ing from her home in Sydney. “The quilts and the laun­dry bags go straight to the heart. It’s about how we make them feel. We get mes­sages from peo­ple say­ing, ‘no one has ever said thank you to me be­fore’.”

Be­tween 150 and 250 vol­un­teers are in­volved.

In Fe­bru­ary this year, the Quil­ters Guild of South Aus­tralia in­vited Ball to ad­dress their an­nual meet­ing, where she told al­most 200 quil­ters about the work of vol­un­teers in ur­ban and re­gional ar­eas all across the coun­try. To date, they have sent off more than 7000 quilts and 14,500 laun­dry bags.

Her talk elicited such a keen re­sponse from SA quil­ters that guild mem­ber Dianne Giles or­gan­ised a work­shop, held last month, at which 27 mem­bers spent all day stitch­ing laun­dry bags and mak­ing a start on quilts for Aussie Heroes. “The first one just came out of the blue, and it came at a re­ally good time. It was a real morale booster.”

“Jan-Ma­ree talked about what it meant to the peo­ple who re­ceived the quilts and laun­dry bags, and it re­ally struck a chord,” says Giles. “All of a sud­den there were all these peo­ple want­ing to make quilts for them.”

Ball was in­vited to visit the 7th Bat­tal­ion, Royal Australian Reg­i­ment at Ed­in­burgh, whose troops have re­ceived Aussie Heroes ship­ments dur­ing de­ploy­ments to Afghanistan. Among them was Lance Cor­po­ral Richard King, a 24-year-old ri­fle­man who has made two tours of duty there in his six years with the Army. Now work­ing back at Ed­in­burgh base, King is the proud owner of two Aussie Hero Quilts, one from each de­ploy­ment.

“The first one just came out of the blue, and it came at a re­ally good time,” he re­calls. “It was a real morale booster, and it’s very finely made and I now have it hang­ing on my wall at home.”

That was back in 2012. Last year, back in Afghanistan with his 7RAR pla­toon the of­fer came through from Aussie Heroes for troops to sign up for a cus­tom-made quilt. “I asked for Richard the Lion­heart, be­cause of my first name,” he says.

The quilt, with its mag­nif­i­cent de­pic­tion of the war­rior king, ar­rived in Novem­ber last year. This quilt is in per­ma­nent use.

“I sleep un­der it ev­ery night,” he says.

Jac­que­line Clark, is an RAAF “mover” based at Ed­in­burgh, along with her hus­band, Daniel, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­ni­cian. Both have been de­ployed over­seas and re­ceived Aussie Heroes quilts. Clark was dev­as­tated when her tour was cut short due to an in­jured shoul­der. By the time her quilt ar­rived, she was back in Aus­tralia.

“It re­ally hits you hard,” she says. “Com­ing back early, it was re­ally tough, and to get the quilt, to know that so many peo­ple are in­volved in mak­ing them, it’s re­ally spe­cial.”

Hers, which fea­tures Lego and StarTrek fig­ures as re­quested by the avowed Trekkie, is too pre­cious to use, she says.

“It takes pride of place on the wall in our house, with our medals.”

Blocks (the el­e­ments that are patched on to back­ing) for Clark’s Trekkie/Lego quilt, and

the en­tire quilt made for her hus­band, were stitched by Aussie Heroes stalwart Julie Ann Searle, of Hill­crest. Over the course of al­most five years she has made 500 laun­dry bags and about 20 quilts.

“I’m house­bound most of the time be­cause my hus­band has MS,” she says. Thanks to her quilts, she has made a personal con­nec­tion with the Clarks, and late last year at­tended the chris­ten­ing of their first child.

“Mostly you don’t hear from them,” she says, “but that’s not why you do it.” She re­calls a hot day a few years ago when she an­swered a knock at the front door.

“A lad had come down from 7RAR. He said ‘you made my laun­dry bag’. He had a bunch of flow­ers and he said the first thing he wanted to do when he got back was to come and thank me per­son­ally.”

Ball her­self served in the RAAF and the Army, as an air traf­fic con­troller and a com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer, but left af­ter 15 years to raise her young fam­ily. Her hus­band served for a sim­i­lar pe­riod.

They had many friends who were still in the forces, and in 2011, one of them told her about an Australian soldier who had been wounded in Afghanistan and was be­ing treated in hospi­tal in Ger­many. The other pa­tients were Amer­i­cans, and all had quilts on their beds, made by vol­un­teers back home. They felt sorry for the only man on the ward with­out one, and ar­ranged for a quilt to be sent to the Australian.

“I thought that was in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous,” says Ball, “but I was re­ally, re­ally ashamed that there was not some­thing for him from Aus­tralia be­cause I re­ally felt we need to look af­ter our troops.”

She made con­tact with the wife of a soldier de­ployed over­seas and asked what she could do to make his tour eas­ier. The woman sug­gested laun­dry bags, be­cause peo­ple so of­ten ended up with some­one else’s clothes, and, if it could be man­aged, quilts.

Akeen blog­ger, Ball posted about her ef­forts, and oth­ers vol­un­teered to help. Ini­tially, quil­ters de­vised their own de­signs and the pack­ages were sent off, to be dis­trib­uted on ar­rival to who­ever needed it most. These days, most are per­son­alised. Of­fers are sent out, invit­ing peo­ple to ap­ply and to list their pref­er­ences.

“They were spe­cial be­fore, but hav­ing them per­son­alised means so much to them,” said Ball.

The re­quests cover “ev­ery­thing you’ve ever thought of and quite few you’ve never con­sid­ered”, she adds. A re­cent one asked for “Marvel themes, Iron­man”. Lots re­quest foot­ball themes, oth­ers nom­i­nate Harry Pot­ter, Star Wars, Juras­sic Park, mil­i­tary air­craft, beer brands …. They also make spe­cial quilts, in­clud­ing their Fallen War­rior quilts, made from blocks de­pict­ing pop­pies which are sent to the chap­lain car­ing for the be­reaved fam­ily.

In 2015, Aussie Heroes was in­vited by the Com­man­der of the Joint Task Force to make a quilt to com­mem­o­rate the An­zac Cen­te­nary. More than 90 vol­un­teers worked on it, stitch­ing blocks of old uni­forms and poppy mo­tifs and em­broi­der­ing the names of op­er­a­tions into its bor­ders.

The quilt toured the Mid­dle East in RAAF Hornets and Wed­getails and was signed by de­ployed troops.

“It is a very spe­cial quilt and quite a few of the troops were quite emo­tional about it,” says Ball. It’s now part of the col­lec­tion at the Australian War Me­mo­rial.

Then there are spe­cial re­quests such as the one from a young pi­lot, who wrote to ask for a quilt to be made for a 100-year-old dig­ger who was a much-loved fig­ure in his town.

“It was pre­sented to the dig­ger and he had a won­der­ful evening talking about it,” re­calls Ball. “That night he went to sleep un­der it and passed away.

“The young man wrote to me from de­ploy­ment when he heard the news and said ‘thank you again for what was to be the last gift the old dig­ger ever got (and a great one at that).

“I am so thank­ful the ladies worked so hard be­cause it wasn’t a mo­ment too soon’.”

You can find out more, and make con­tact with Aussie Heroes Quilts, via their Face­book page

Above, Jan-Ma­ree Ball, Aussie Hero Quilts founder; bot­tom, Daniel and Jac­que­line Clark, RAAF Base Ed­in­burgh; Lance Cor­po­ral Richard King, RAAF Base Ed­in­burgh (Pic­tures: Matt Loxton); and Pri­vate Jess Hardy and Lance Cor­po­ral Michael Groe­nendyk with An­zac Cen­te­nary Quilt, Afghanistan

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