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
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...