Local group giving foster kids sense of stability with custom quilts | ‘It’s just love, that’s what it is’

“It’s just love, that’s what it is,” Lively said. “Everybody needs love, especially foster children.”
Updated: Mar. 5, 2021 at 5:34 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Hannah Lively grew up feeding, bathing and clothing her four younger siblings. As an 8-year-old, she potty-trained and made bottles for her two brothers and two sisters while her mother shot up heroin in the next room.

Lively said her mother would disappear for hours, sometimes days, to find her fix of crystal meth and heroin. Lively would find bags and needles around the house and like the 443,000 other children around the country, Lively was eventually taken into the foster system.

“When I was with my mom, I was even scared to go to school. There was a lot of times I missed school because I didn’t want to leave my siblings,” Lively said. “I just felt like that was my responsibility. I had the mother role, even to my mother.”

Lively packed a handful of her items at the age of 12 and was placed in a house with 13 other youth in Jefferson County. That was 2011, when Jefferson County had 259 cases of children in abusive or neglectful homes, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services.

The living situation in the Jefferson County house was so bad Lively said they didn’t always have access to necessities like water, food and electricity. The crowded Jefferson County foster system had to find homes for 473 children in any given month that year.

“I was depressed,” Lively said, saying she felt lost and insecure. “I had anxiety and a lot of personal identification issues.”

The state moved Lively to St. Louis County when housing became limited in Jefferson County. She was matched with Angels’ Arms, an organization providing homes for foster children around the St. Louis Metro. Lively had just turned 14 and said she finally found a place where she felt safe, loved and can act her age.

“A lot of things were lifted off my shoulders,” Lively said. “Just the fact that I knew I was going to be fed and I didn’t have to worry about the electricity being on [or] how we were going to bathe.”

As a welcome gift, Angels Arms gave her something of her own; a heavy purple quilt with zebra pattern and a denim pocket with Lively’s name on it.

For children who have had almost nothing of their own their entire lives, something as simple as a personalized quilt can carry tremendous significance.

“Children entering foster care often arrive at our homes with very limited belongings,” Jasmina Schue said, the assistant executive director at Angels Arms. “It’s a gift that provides so much warmth and comfort to children at the most vulnerable time in their lives.”

Angels Arms partner with a group called DenimQuilts to make sure each child they take gets such a blanket, adorned with each kids’ name, favorite colors and interests.

DenimQuilts, a volunteer-based group, was launched in 2009. The group celebrated handing out their 2,000th quilt the summer of 2019.

Photo collage of quilts and Julie
Photo collage of quilts and Julie(KMOV)

“It really reassures that there are people that care,” Lively said. “There are people that have your back when things are really rough.”

Julie Treloar and Sally Safranski co-founded DenimQuilts.

Making a quilt is not an easy or quick process: each takes between 24 to 48 hours to make and involves several people, all volunteers. One cuts the fabric, another zigzags the edges while another person embroiders names and shapes. Another would then hem the different pieces together and Treloar would tie the top denim piece to a flannel backing with a batting in between.

The process is long, but Treloar said it’s all worth it since the end product is a long-lasting quilt, helping struggling kids feel loved and cared for.

“It makes you feel good that you can take a talent that you enjoy and feel like it’s given to somebody who really needs it and appreciates it,” Treloar said.

Debbie Genung, the senior director of development with the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition in St. Louis, said most kids brought into the coalition have suffered physical or sexual abuse, severe neglect and trauma.

Because the quilts include a denim top, they are naturally heavy, an element Genung believes is essential, as the weight provides comfort and a sense of security.

“With the opioid epidemic, the severe neglect is a big part of that because parents are choosing to shoot up heroin or something and not making breakfast or caring for them,” Genung said. “We have found just anecdotally that another reason the kids really love these quilts is because of their weight. That has just been like a happy byproduct of the fact that the kids really want them.”

Lively was just a kid when she received her first quilt. She described the quilt as a symbol of light, slowly chasing away the darkness she felt throughout her childhood. It was the first time she felt the care and affection she was missing in her early childhood.

“It’s just love, that’s what it is,” Lively said. “Everybody needs love, especially foster children.”

Hannah Lively broke into tears when she saw her new quilt for the first time.
Hannah Lively broke into tears when she saw her new quilt for the first time.(KMOV)

Lively is now 20. She lives in St. Louis and is going to college for nursing. The hope she felt when she received her quilt helped her transform the neglect and abuse she’s suffered as a child into empathy. She’s molded all that was wrong in her life into strength and motivation to help others in need through nursing.

Lively lost her quilt somewhere throughout the years. When Treloar found out Lively and her quilt had been separated, she got DenimQuilts in motion. She asked a handful of the group’s 40 volunteers to make Lively a new quilt, even more personalized than the first one.

The new quilt has a purple flannel with a marble-like pattern on the back and a denim top. Lively’s name is embroidered on a denim pocket and other denim sections include embroidery of her current interests and hobbies, like aerial dancing and nursing.

Six years after she was handed her quilt as a struggling teenager, Lively broke into tears when she saw the new one.

“I love this,” Lively said when she received the quilt. “I’m gonna keep it forever.”

The two women broke down, one overcome by the reminder she is loved, the other in awe from witnessing what the quilts mean to those in need.

“It was really a special feeling,” Treloar said. “To see her reaction, her crying. I didn’t expect her to cry and then I was crying … it really brings home what this is all about and why I do this. To bring that feeling, that special love to each one of these kids.”

“It meant so much and I feel loved. I feel cared for,” Lively said. “And when we do receive these quilts that are personalized, you feel like you belong. You feel like there are people who care.”

To report a case of child abuse or neglect, call 800-392-3738.

DenimQuilts is always looking for non-stretch denim and flannel for their quilts. You can reach Julie Treloar at julie@denimquilts.org for information about donations and volunteering with the group.