'Coming from the heart'
Betty Nielsen has been referred to as a hero, an angel - and even as a blessing from God.
The Fonda woman who since Sept. 11, 2001, has devoted her life to designing and lovingly stitching quilts to provide some comfort to the families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks, can also be described as inspiring.
She has taken on another mission, to provide these wonderful quilts for families who have lost loved one in the war and victims of the hurricanes.
Thus far, she and many wonderful friends and her loving husband, have made 5,600 quilts - and she isn't about to quit.
She believes the mission, called Freedom Quilts, came from God. She has been honored for the project many times and received heart-touching thank yous from the appreciative recipients.
Nielsen kept one of her original five 911 quilts called "War Paint" and has displayed it often. It will soon have a very special home - the World Trade Center Memorial Museum - for everyone to see.
Four of the original five quilts went to families of 911 victims. War Paint, Nielsen said, was the only one she could not part with. "Many times I thought about giving it away one but something inside held me back.
She described the quilt and its design.
"It was the red, white and blue we wore with pride. We were ready to defend our country and for the first time in a very long time we were truly united. It's sad that it took such a devastation to bring us all together. Somewhere down the line we started going back to our own way but the families and our soldiers were still standing tall and united.
"Our military fights for our freedom to keep us safe so we will never lose our freedom and the 9-11 families they also fight for all of us by going to Washington and making sure that laws that have been passed to protected us are being enforced. When I look at the eagle with the red, white and blue colors of our flag in his face, I thought that was all of us at one time."
You may not see the flag in their faces as you see it in War Paint quilt but they wear it well with honor and pride and that is why I know that the War Paint quilt belongs in the World Trade Center Memorial Museum so we all can see that when we stand united we can make a different. We have made a huge difference to the families that receive our quilts and we are still making a difference."
Since her mission began, Nielsen and husband Dennis have made eight trips to the East coast, where she has become acquainted with families who lost loved ones. She is considered "family" there. She receives an invitation to each of the 911 anniversary observances; the Nielsens did not want to miss the five year observance this past fall.
She hugged and cried with those who needed her. She received a special invitation to go to Ground Zero, a place naturally reserved for family members, and was presented a small urn filled with sacred soil from the site. She treasures the gift immensely.
Nielsen has prayed and questioned whether she is strong enough to continue this work and answers have come her way, she said.
"The letters and the phone calls I get - that's what keeps me going."
One of her biggest desires is that there will someday be a place she can display the urn and all the cards and letters, gifts and awards that have come her way.
"They represent all of us and how much we care about others. I don't do this alone," she said with deep conviction.
The quilts being made now for the families of fallen soldiers are personalized. She doesn't rush through the process; she does her research and takes time to visit with the families and find out as much as she can about the loved ones. Photos are transferred onto fabric by Dennis and incorporated into the quilt for a special touch. "These quilts are coming from the heart."
The requests for quilts continue; she vows she will never turn anyone away. Sometimes, she said, it takes up to a year before a family member will contact her to ask for a piece of comfort. They can't be rushed either, she believes.
Much of the work is done in the Nielsen home, although groups have gathered to work on quilts set up in the couple's church. There is always more than one quilt being worked on at a time; once she had eight in the works.
After so much involvement, it is difficult not to become emotionally involved. She devotes much time and dedication to her quilts during the construction process but when they are done, she releases her emotions and cries over each one, over each fallen soldier. "I sit and cry for each of these families," she shared with tears in her eyes.
Nielsen has been recognized not only by friends and family for her work, but by political leaders as well. Senator Tom Harkin visited her and added his touch to a quilt she was working on and during her trip to New York in September, Senator Hillary Clinton stopped to visit with her and told to "not stop" her mission work.
Just where did her fancy needle work come from? She admitted, prior to 911, she was a quilter but "not a very good one!"
She adds, "I have learned if you have faith and are determined, you can do anything."
Freedom Quilts operates on donations and anyone who wishes to volunteer their time.
To learn more about this extraordinary project, check out the website at www.fredoomquilts.net, email Betty at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to her at Freedom Quilts, Inc., C/o Betty Nielsen, 13637 550th St., Fonda, IA. 50540