Side by side, couple in 80s crafts quilts for children in need

By Jessica Brodie

GREER—One elderly United Methodist couple is using their golden years to give back and do rather than sit back and receive.

Ken and Joanne Lehman, longtime members of Ebenezer UMC, are in their 80s and are experiencing health difficulties. But over the past 15 years, they have pushed those cares aside and made nearly 1,600 quilts for children in need at Greenville’s A Child’s Haven. A Child’s Haven is a child treatment center that helps young children whose development has been delayed by limited resources, abuse or neglect; 70 percent of the children served there are in poverty.

Side by side at least four days a week, the Lehmans measure out and cut fabric blocks, then sew them into 44x60-inch quilts that are given to the children for nap time at the center.

“It’s one of the greatest things we’ve ever touched,” Ken Lehman says, squeezing his wife’s hand with a smile.

She nods, smiles back. “Oh, it’s so rewarding.”

Motioning to the dozen or more finished quilts stacked neatly in their living room, Ken shrugs. “We just get so much out of it. And we get so much out of working together.”

Dottie Leavengood, Ebenezer’s outreach ministries coordinator, said the Lehmans’ commitment to each other and to helping others is astounding.

“This is such an incredible endeavor for two people who could be sitting by and letting people do for them,” Leavengood said. “They just love people. They’re so tenderhearted.”

Labor of love

3-Lehman-quilters-cutterThe Lehmans, both age 83, got the idea for the quilts when they befriended an older lady, Carol, and her daughter-in-law Barbara at church. The duo showed the Lehmans how they made quilts, and the Lehmans decided it looked like a fun project they could do together at home.

After all, the Lehmans are no strangers to the sewing business. Joanne sews and comes from a long line of seamstresses, and a quilt her great-grandmother made for Joanne’s mother back in 1916 hangs over the couple’s bed. Ken owned a sewing machine store and a shoe store for a time. They learned how to quilt by trial and error, and 15 years later, they’ve worked out a good system.

The first two years they cut all the fabric by hand, and they purchased their own supplies for the first six years. Now they have a roller razor cutter, and the church helps buy their batting and fabric.

Today, the couple works on the quilts several days a week, some days from early morning until evening with just a short break for lunch. Joanne washes and irons the fabric, then they both measure and cut it to size. They iron it again, then lay out the design.

“She’s the pattern lady.” Ken winks at his wife.

They sit together, Joanne right beside him as he works the sewing machine.

“He sews them all,” Joanne says.

“And we’re elbow to elbow,” Ken says. “Eight across, 11 down.”

They do the long strips and sew them across, then do the backer and knot them. At first they knotted all 88, but now they figured out they only need to knot 52.

“My left hand has arthritis,” Joanne explains.3-Lehman-quilters-fabric

It takes a lot of time, Ken says.

“It’s like when I made shoes,” he said. “It’s a process—you either get it right or you don’t.”

They’ve figured it out: if you calculate the 1,585 quilts they have made to-date, it took them 6,340 yards of fabric (four yards per quilt) and would stretch out three full miles if you put them all together.

“Those quilts are so full of love you can feel it,” Leavengood said. “It’s all out of sharing their love for God. We can’t do anything for God, so we’ve got to do it for other people. He’s got everything, so we can only give to others. And Ken and Joanne give so much.”

That hug is everything

Every other month, they deliver the quilts to A Child’s Haven, often with Leavengood by their side.

The children get to keep their quilts when they “graduate” to kindergarten, though some of the children are so attached to their quilts they take them home nightly.

“Two just won’t part with them—they take them home every evening and bring them back every morning,” Joanne said.

3-Lehman-quilters-awardThat’s exactly why they do it—because of the children. Married 43 years this month, the Lehmans have four sons and daughters, 12 grandchildren and 18 great-grands between them, and they adore children. And the look on the children’s faces when they visit with quilts at A Child’s Haven motivates them to make more and more, whenever they can.

“That hug from a child—that’s everything,” Ken says.

Sharing how one little boy turned around and blew them a kiss in gratitude for his quilt, Joanne says the tears just roll down their cheeks whenever they visit.

“The first time we went through that door just melted our hearts,” Joanne says.

One mother whose four young children slept together in the same bed at night pinned her children’s quilts together to make one big quilt. When the Lehmans heard that, they were touched beyond measure.

“Those are the things you never forget,” Ken said.

Jennifer McGuffee, community engagement specialist for A Child’s Haven, said the quilts are a real gift of love for the children they serve, many of whom have been through so much trauma in their young lives.

“That extra layer on them gives them comfort, like the touch of a mom or dad,” McGuffee said.

Rebekah Muhilly, executive assistant, said the Lehmans’ passion is “amazing.”

“They’re a blessing for us, and they won’t take any credit for it. They’re unsung heroes!” Muhilly said. “It makes a world of difference when you touch a child’s heart like that.”

A life of service

The Lehmans don’t just love others by making quilts. Leavengood said they give in many other ways, too. They volunteer weekly at church, help with Christmas wishes for Generations Group Home and prepare items for the church fall bazaar. She said Ebenezer, with 102 members, is not very big but is incredibly active, with a contagious spirit of service.

But the Lehmans model that spirit of Christian service in a huge and inspiring way, she said.

The Lehmans said they hope they are able to teach someone else how to quilt so they can follow in their footsteps. Joanne said she hopes sharing their story will inspire others to consider doing the same, whether for A Child’s Haven or another place in need.

“Our time is running out—we’re 83 years old,” Joanne says, laughing. “At our age you never know how long we’ll be doing it.

“But I’m sure we’ll be doing it as long as we’re breathing.”

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