A needle and thread are Ellie Balko’s tools for comfort and healing as she diligently works on projects for Redwood Area Hospital’s Quilts of Caring program. Some days she sews quilt tops, and some days she hand stitches the quilts together, but each day her projects are done with the same goal: comfort.
“Feeling cold is a common side-effect of cancer treatment,” explained Cindy Moldan, Redwood Area Hospital Cancer Center manager. “Not only do these quilts literally warm up our patients bodies, but also their hearts as they know someone else in the community is rooting for them in their fight.”
The Quilts of Caring program started in 2002 with the goal of providing a quilt to each cancer patient, and so far they have met that goal through the talents of local quilters like Ellie Balko.
The first quilt was given to the Cancer Center by Redwood Falls resident and hospital employee, Julie Salmon. She let others in her quilt club know about the program and just a few months later Balko donated five quilts. Balko’s donations have continued each year with her latest donation bringing her total to 55 quilts for the hospital’s Cancer Center.
“When I start cutting, I can get a little carried away,” Balko shared with a chuckle—noting that last year she made 16 quilt tops and has many more piles of fabric “extras” and squares ready to go.
Balko says her own experiences—including watching her mother deal with excruciating pain in the throes of her battle with cancer 30 years ago—motivate her to keep quilting for cancer patients.
“I will always remember my mother’s words, when she told me, ‘I thought I had pain before but it’s nothing like now.’” Balko recalls. “I hope that my quilts can help a cancer patient feel comfort and healing… it’s going to be a tough thing to go through,” said Balko, who hand stitches intricate designs into each quilt.
When a cancer patient starts their treatment at the hospital, Moldan takes them to a wall of quilts where they can choose their quilt. On the day Balko brought in her latest donations, two more quilts were on their way out with new patients.
“Opening the glass doors of our quilt cabinet is like opening a treasure chest,” Moldan said. “We are so fortunate to have so many beautiful and unique quilts for our patients.”
While setbacks in her own health may slow Balko down from time to time, the 35 year resident of Redwood Falls doesn’t let her own challenges stop her. Balko has been disabled since 1990 after a heart attack, open heart surgery and a slew of other health issues. She started quilting in 1996 and two years later made her first quilt by looking at a picture. In addition, the first quilt that she entered into the Minnesota Quilters state quilt show won third prize.
For many years she quilted coasters and other small projects that she would sell at Holmberg Orchard and other local businesses. Now she focuses her time mainly on quilts for the Cancer Center and family projects.
“If I can make someone in our community feel a little bit better, that makes each stitch worth it,” Balko said.