In the mid-1980s, as a frightened American public argued policy options, treatment alternatives and attribution of blame, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross revealed the plight of an estimated 3,000 infants born HIV-positive in the U.S. The newborns, she said, were languishing unloved, without families, and frequently anonymous in the back wards of children’s hospitals across the nation. Moved by the enormity of this tragedy, she insisted that people needed to “do something” for these helpless innocents.

From tiny Northwood, NH, Ellen Ahlgren interpreted Kubler-Ross’s call as a special obligation. ABC Quilts, an unassuming community service initiative, is rooted in one town’s response to the AIDS epidemic–or more precisely, to the hysteria that gripped the nation. Ahlgren says it was never her intention to launch a global phenomenon–and thereby hangs the tale.

By 1988 the plague had abruptly broken out of the gay community and now ravaged a growing population of low-income, often substance-abusing pregnant women. AIDS victims were publicly shunned and degraded, condemned as much for their lifestyle as their affliction. And, according to Kubler-Ross, the same fear, ignorance and social stigma attached to the disease were marking these babies as well.

Sharing Kubler-Ross’s sense of outrage, the only question for Ahlgren was not whether to act, but what to do. Reminded of the loving care she had stitched into quilts made for each of her five children and nine grandchildren, Ahlgren persuaded family members, friends, and neighbors to donate their time and skills toward making a small batch of 60 or so crib quilts for the “AIDS babies.” She and friend Ann White posted flyers at a local crafts fair and began contacting area hospitals–though at the time, many hospitals denied even having AIDS patients, children or adults.

Undaunted, they tapped personal acquaintances among health care providers, developing a number of solid leads. “We made our first delivery of six baby quilts to Boston City Hospital one hot July day in 1988,” Ahlgren recalls. They soon followed suit at Children’s Hospital in Boston, the second recipient of a dozen crib quilts from this modest all-volunteer effort–AIDS Babies Crib (A-B-C) Quilts was born.

An unsigned news item printed in Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine introduced the quilting project to an international readership of about 300,000. Suddenly, with inquiries pouring in “by the bushel,” ABC Quilts soon needed a more formal structure and procedures to manage the mushrooming international network of volunteer quilt makers, distributors, and institutional recipients.

The National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions (NACHRI), a nonprofit membership organization of 161 children’s hospitals, pediatric units of large medical centers and related health systems, was an early endorser of the mission and organization of ABC Quilts. Ahlgren credits NACHRI for recognizing the value of the initiative and opening the doors to children’s medical facilities across the nation.

To date, over 500,000 babies (from Boston to Bosnia, Tokyo to Tampa, FL) have received a handmade coverlet labeled, “With love and comfort to you,” followed by the first name and home state of the quilter. The rapid growth of the organization has frequently generated unexpected opportunities for travel and new friendships.

“In 1994, Ann and I found ourselves attending the 10th International AIDS Conference in Yokohama as guests of ABC Quilts of Japan,” said Ahlgren. Dr. Noriko Tsuji, the zone coordinator, entertained them and coordinated appearances in several Japanese cities with active volunteer quilt-makers. Dr. Tsuji and her group have since carried the mission of ABC Quilts into several other Asian countries and into India.

But even good works can have unexpected and unwelcome consequences. Roughly three years into the project, Ahlgren learned that some infants were being singled out and labeled “AIDS babies” because of their warm and colorful crib quilts. Somewhat dismayed by this reaction, ABC Quilts responded by changing its name and broadening its mission: From now on, the “A” would stand for “At-risk,” denoting infants “born wounded in the womb”–including babies suffering with AIDS, fetal alcohol syndrome or a drug addiction. “The real tragedy,” she hastens to add, “is that all of these afflictions are preventable.”       

From the beginning, two concerns have driven this project: providing cozy, handmade crib quilts for abandoned and hospitalized infants, while also introducing a strong message about AIDS awareness and prevention to adults, school-aged children and youth. Extending its network into the public schools, 4H Clubs, and similar youth development programs in every state, ABC Quilts tackled the social and educational aspects of its mission, emphasizing quilt-making as a springboard for promoting awareness, education, and prevention.

Its first book, Kids Making Quilts for Kids, a how-to manual, was published in 1992. “This book included a section of frequently asked questions on AIDS and HIV,” Ahlgren recalls. “Later, we incorporated the FAQs into our educational videos.” Affirming the core mission of the organization, actress and supporter Joanne Woodward volunteered her time and talents to narrate one of the organization’s videos. “ABC Quilts touches people’s hearts and teaches them the importance of making responsible choices,” Woodward explained.

Ahlgren also compiled and published Tips From Teachers, based on feedback from participating teachers, early in 2002. Described as “a cross-curricular, intergenerational, project-based, community service learning activity,” it includes lesson plans, form letters and comments from these teachers.

These materials were recently combined into the ABC Quilts Educational Program. This grade-appropriate curriculum for elementary, middle, and high school students was unveiled on the Internet this past fall.

“I’m more an educator than a quilter,” Ahlgren confides, “and as an educator, my role has been to ensure that we didn’t lose sight of our broader educational purpose.”

The ABC Quilts program is governed by a hardworking, New Hampshire-based board of directors, which meets monthly.

The executive director, juried quilter Pamela Weeks Worthen, joined the initiative almost four years ago. As Ahlgren’s successor, she has grown into the job, working hard to promote the service-learning aspects of the program. Barbara Saunders, administrative assistant, has computerized and improved overall communication as the program continues to expand. Finally, at its operational heart are the hundreds of zone and area coordinators–volunteers anchoring local networks who take responsibility for managing donations, distribution, publicity, volunteers, and quality-control certifying every quilt “baby-safe.”

Today, at 83, Ahlgren, a white-haired grandmother, former special education teacher, former hospice counselor, and former nonprofit executive director, insists that the success of the program is a tribute to the incredible dedication of caring and compassionate individual volunteers, and to the generosity of businesses, foundations and donors from all walks of life. “A program like ABC Quilts demonstrates what Americans are really like,” Ahlgren says, proudly.

ABC Quilts is still headquartered in Northwood, where the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, which owns the building, has donated space, light and heat for more than 10 years. Ann White is still actively involved at age 81, as are many family members, friends, and neighbors–and Ahlgren, though still active on the board, remains, for the moment, “theoretically retired.”

The complete ABC Quilts Educational Program can be ordered directly from the Northwood, NH, Home Office of ABC Quilts, 603-942-9211, 603-942-9210 (fax), or [email protected]. For program information, news, and regional contacts, visit their Web site.