The special gift Jan Mackem gives to disaster victims

By Gordon Williams

Red Cross responders provide disaster victims with all manner of emergency supplies: blankets, clean-up kits, personal care items. But disaster victims on the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas of Washington often get all that and something more: quilts made by hand  by responder Jan Mackem and a half dozen of her colleagues.

The label on each quilt reads: “Made for you by friends of the American Red Cross, Bremerton WA.”  Bremerton is headquarters for the Red Cross Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas Chapter, one of the seven chapters that make up the Red Cross Northwest Region.

The group can turn out eight to ten quilts a month, some adult-sized and some meant for children. Each is a labor of love, since none of the quilters is reimbursed for time, labor or raw materials. There is help from the community, though. A fabric store in Bremerton has donated working space, and friends of the project donate the cloth that will be turned into quilts.

Quilters work when they can. The “official” quilting day is the first Friday of each month when the team gets together at the Pacific Fabrics store in Bremerton. But some members do most of their work at home. On the team, besides Jan Mackem, are Sue Deanne, Deanna Lilly, Kathy and Danny McBride, Frances Mildenstein, Marilyn Sudbeck and Mari Woody.

There is a certain amount of specialization in making quilts. Thus, the McBrides do the heavy machine sewing while others do more of the finishing work. Jan says one of her co-workers picks up a bunch of partially finished quilts every week, brings them home and adds the binding.

Even Bill Mackem, Jan’s husband, plays a role. When the quilts are finished, Bill transports them to the Red Cross office in downtown Bremerton.

Disaster victims typically are given the quilts when they come to the Red Cross office in Bremerton to meet with the caseworkers who will start them on the road to recovery. Jan’s reward for all that work is the look of deep-felt appreciation she sees on the faces of disaster victims when they are given a quilt. The recipients are often still in shock from a home fire or some other disaster. For many, receiving a quilt is a first tangible sign that the worst is over and better times lie ahead.

One scene that stands out in Jan’s mind is a fire that left a family of four homeless, with most of their possession gone. “The mother was distraught and the kids were crying,” Jan says. To add to the distress, Jan says, “It was really, really cold.” Fortunately, Jan and her response partner each had quilts in their cars — enough so each family member got one. “The kids were delighted,” Jan says. “Once the mother saw that her kids were happy, she was able to calm down.”

Jan says she first got the idea for making the quilts back in 2012. “I felt there was a need for them and I wanted to be able to donate them to our community,” she says. She got Pacific Fabrics to make working space available, and lined up other Red Cross volunteers to join in making the quilts. The team has been turning out eight or ten quilts each month ever since.

Actually, Jan became a Red Cross volunteer long before the first quilt was made. She first volunteered in 2005, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She initially went to Mississippi to aid flood victims there. As the flooding moved north, she moved north as well, finally ending up in Memphis, Tennessee.

Jan has been a Red Cross disaster responder in Bremerton, but she is a registered nurse and her real contribution has been as a health services worker at disaster scenes — both in the Bremerton area and on deployment. Over the years, she has deployed to incidents as far apart as flooding in North Dakota and Superstorm Sandy in the New York City area.

It is a given that disasters will create medical emergencies. Vital medications, such as insulin for diabetics, may be lost in a fire. Jan will replace the lost medication and make sure it is taken when needed. Food intake must be monitored to be sure shelter meals don’t cause problems for clients on special diets. Disasters breed injuries that must be cared for — minor stuff most of the time, but Jan has also dealt with conditions as serious as a stroke. 

Jan and Bill Mackem at a volunteer appreciation event

Jan spent her Sandy deployment on Long Island, just outside New York City. “People were without power for long periods of time in sub-freezing temperatures,” she says. “The police kept bringing in people to our shelters who needed immediate medical attention.”  Her last days on Sandy deployment were spent going from house to house checking on the health of Red Cross clients.

There’s no question that Jan and her quilt-making team occupy a special place among staff and volunteers in her Red Cross chapter. Jan’s work was recognized at a recent volunteer appreciation dinner of the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas chapter — called to her feet and given a lengthy and loud round of applause.

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