Volunteer-based quilters group serves community with donated fabric

Mondays through Thursdays are regular production days for a special quilting group operating out of the basement of Payette’s historic St. James Episcopal Church.

Many of the quilters’ numerous donations help to provide warmth and comfort to people at moments when they are especially vulnerable — such as when they’ve just been involved in a motor vehicle accident. The recipient could also be a child arriving with her mom at a domestic violence shelter without any of her possessions from home.

The Ripper Quilt Club, which was started in 2012, traces its ancestry to about a dozen years earlier, when co-founder Richell Kekelis was owner and operator of a quilting shop in Baker City.

One day, Kekelis’ then-school-age grandchildren came to her with a plaintive, urgent request: make some warm garments for an impoverished family the grandkids had been observing walking to school without any coats. It was winter and the snow was flying.

“So I made them fleece hoodies,” Kekelis said. The hoodies were extra-warm because they were made from commercial-grade fleece.

Word of Kekelis’ deed spread, because soon a representative from the Rachel Pregnancy Center in Baker City contacted Kekelis to find out if she would start making hoodies for young children. Kekelis started providing hoodies in various sizes, for children weighing from 7 to 24 pounds.

Thus was launched an ongoing community service, one to which Kekelis was well suited since she already possessed the necessary working space, equipment and skills, and by nature she was generous with her time and labor when it came to helping others.

Before long, the Oregon State Police office in Baker City was also knocking on her door. What the state police wanted were wraps that could be fit into a given size storage container that’s included in the trunk of nearly all the agency’s rolling units. The wraps are for use by people at accident scenes or anyplace else where emergency responders encounter a need.

Kekelis said she tries to provide two fleece wraps for each trunk in the local fleet.

Throughout most of that first decade she continued donating hoodies and wraps to the pregnancy center and state police, and about a year after she closed her Baker City shop and moved to Payette in 2009, she resumed those donor activities. Additional organizations asked for her help.

Some of the women she met in her new community started to pitch in. Kekelis and Carol Vaughn, wife of Duane Vaughn, pastor at First Baptist Church in Payette, formed a nonprofit club to channel all of that good energy.

The club initially operated out of First Baptist Church, but quarters there were rather limited for the expanding operation. So Pastor Vaughn approached the church warden at nearby St. James Episcopal, which has a small congregation but a spacious basement. The Episcopalians quickly agreed to host the quilters, who moved their tables, equipment and materials into the basement in April of 2016.

At its peak, the club had 22 members, Carol Vaughn said. Nearly all members have been retirees, and individuals tend to drop out as eyesight grows poor or manual dexterity slips with advancing age. The membership total currently stands at 17.

Kekelis, who can design quilts, performs all the finishing work, using her long-arm machine set upon a long table in a dedicated room. Vaughn’s specialty is applique. They both work in the basement, keeping it open four days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. so other members can pop in to pick up bagged kits containing pieces to sew at home.

Nowadays, the list of organizations the club serves is a long one, highlighted by ROSE Advocates, Hands of Hope, Love Inc. and the Halfway Veterans Care Home.

Donations of fabric are not merely welcome; they’re essential.

“All of the fabric is donated that we use — all of it,” Kekelis said.

In addition to fashioning quilts, wraps and hoodies, the club is big into accepting used coats, repairing them as needed before they are distributed.

Last year the club processed 176 coats, Kekelis said.

“I start about July and it takes me until October, and we go through an enormous amount of fleece,” she said.

“We really could use a washer and dryer,” Kekelis later added. And, yes, the church basement does have a spot for the appliance pair.

People don’t have to be very well skilled to join the club, because Kekelis can readily teach the needed skills. Such was the case with Jeanne Patton, who said she only knew how to sew a straight line, and not much beyond that. A year later, Patton had a blue ribbon from a quilt she entered at a county fair.

“She teaches quilting for free, and you can’t beat that,” Patton said of Kekelis.

Kekelis and Vaughn both credit Vaughn’s husband with giving the club its name. Having visited the club several times previously, on one visit he finally remarked to the quilters that they always seemed to be ripping out stitches.

The women had no reservations about calling themselves “rippers” because any dedicated quilter is resigned to that side of the activity.

“If you can’t handle the ripping out, you might as well not be a quilter,” Kekelis said.

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