Lives stitched together

The Wheatley family of Hop Bottom started My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group more than 30 years ago as a way to help keep homeless people warm by providing them with homemade sleeping bags. From left, Flo and Jim Wheatley and their two children, Leonard Wheatley and Gloria Hoeffner, display a banner the group has made to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2012. TIMES-SHAMROCK PHOTO/JAKE DANNA STEVENS

BY CAITLIN HEANEY

Times-Shamrock Writer

At first glance it might seem like not much has changed in the 31 years My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group has made sleeping bags from fabric scraps for the homeless.

The Wheatleys, who founded the nonprofit, still gather around the kitchen table at their home in the wooded hills of Hop Bottom to manage donations, answer questions and make the in-demand bags.

“This is our board room,” family matriarch Flo Wheatley said.

But that kitchen table these days is the center of a much larger universe than it was in the early 1980s, when the Wheatleys made the first sleeping bag from scraps of their own clothing and gave it to a homeless man in need. That started a wave of giving that has led to thousands of people and groups around the world helping homeless people stay warm with the sleeping bags they provide.

“What we discovered was people want to help,” Wheatley said in her comfortable home on a recent rainy afternoon. “They really want to help. They just need to know what to do.”

The idea for the Sleeping Bag Project came a few years after an encounter Wheatley and her then-teenage son Leonard had in the late 1970s in New York City, where he was being treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A man who appeared to be homeless approached them while they waited on a subway platform, where an ill Leonard sat on one of their suitcases, and said, “Lady, you need help.”

Act of kindness

 Wheatley told him they were fine, but after a few moments the man repeated his observation. She mentioned they were just trying to get to Flushing, N.Y., and before she knew it, he had picked up one of her suitcases – which just so happened to contain their money for the week – and walked away.

Wheatley grabbed her son and quickly followed as the man dodged a subway turnstile and hopped on a train. He switched to the train the Wheatleys needed next and disembarked exactly where they were to get off.

“I realized that he wasn’t there to hurt me,” Wheatley recalled.

The man then stopped a cab, threw in the Wheatleys’ suitcase and told them to get in. Wheatley handed him a $5 tip, and the man with clear eyes and glasses with no lenses left her with words she never has forgotten and then closed the cab door.

“He looked straight in my eyes and said, ‘Don’t abandon me.’ … I just knew what he said was part of me,” Wheatley said.

Leonard’s health improved and life moved forward. Wheatley continued to notice the homeless people she would pass during trips to New York, where her husband, Jim, worked as a heavy-construction surveyor. One day she noticed a homeless man keeping warm with a homemade blanket, and she came up with the idea to make a sleeping bag as a way to honor the man who helped her on the subway.

Wheatley recalled how they drove around New York City in the rain looking for someone in need who could use the bag and gave out the first of eight they would make that year.

“We just did it as a family project,” Wheatley said.

Wheatley took a bunch of sleeping bags with him whenever he went from Hop Bottom to the city. Word spread about what they were doing, and the family had to decide whether to commit to what could – and did – become a major undertaking.

“Jim said once the project leaves the kitchen table it will never stop,” Wheatley recalled.

The family decided to go for it, and they have never looked back. Local church groups showed interest in helping, and the family came up with a pattern others could follow to make their own sleeping bags. They have kept the process simple so the bags cost nothing to make and children as young as fifth-graders can help.

They use donations ranging from old socks to shirts to hotel blankets for cloth and neckties for straps, making sure the sleeping bags look “ugly” so no one would want to save or sell them.

“Any time something looks too good, the homeless don’t get it,” Wheatley said.

Support grows

The project remained a local endeavor until 1994, when Guideposts magazine published an article about the group and “put this project on the map,” Wheatley said. Suddenly people around the world wanted to help.

Church groups, schools and scout organizations all have stepped forward, but Wheatley pointed out that the Sleeping Bag Project remains a local initiative for each group. She tells people and groups outside Northeast Pennsylvania how to make their own bags.

“They deal with it in their own backyards,” Wheatley said.

Groups will even drive for hours to the Wheatley home to pick up supplies. And each Wednesday, volunteers go there to organize and prepare for deliveries. Sleeping bags are rolled with a few other supplies like hats and gloves tucked inside.

“We just load the trucks and go as people call,” Wheatley said.

The family, which uses its barn and garage as storage space for the group, even widened its driveway to three times its original size to accommodate visitors. Wheatley continues to drive the group’s van anywhere within a day’s drive to drop off sleeping bags, and the couple’s three grown children continue to help as well.

To celebrate the group’s 30th anniversary in 2012, volunteers have put together 72-foot-long, double-sided, quilted banners featuring the names of every person and group that has ever helped the cause. Wheatley plans to give one to a Montrose museum and another to the Smithsonian Institution.

“This is our tribute to (the volunteers),” she said.

Wheatley estimates the group has provided 100,000 sleeping bags since its founding. Their goal, she said, is to find groups that each would “adopt” a homeless shelter, contact them three times a year to see what sleeping bags they need and then provide them.

“That would take a tremendous burden off us,” Wheatley said.

And while the group would not exist without the Wheatleys, Wheatley pointed out how no one owns or has a copyright on My Brother’s Keeper, not even them, so anyone can use it to help others.

“It’s open,” Wheatley said, “and we need everybody.”

The family: Parents Jim and Flo Wheatley of Hop Bottom; children, Margaret Olsen, Staten Island, N.Y.; Gloria Hoeffner, Dunmore; and Leonard Wheatley, Hop Bottom.

Charity: The Wheatleys founded My Brother’s Keeper Quilt Group, which started the Sleeping Bag Project as a way of providing homeless people with sleeping bags.

Details: For more information about the group, visit www.thesleepingbagproject.org or call 289-4335.