Over 1,000 offer to help Chicago woman honor 99-year-old by completing unfinished quilt

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CHICAGO – When Shannon Downey saw an unfinished embroidery and quilting project at an estate sale in Mount Prospect, she knew she had to finish it.

“When I saw it, I just felt like, ‘I have to do this,'” Downey told WGN.

Rita Smith, 99, passed away in August before could complete the large quilt of a map of the United States, with separate embroideries for each state.

Someone on social media tracked down a high school yearbook photo of Rita Smith. Photo courtesy Shannon Downey.

There was just one problem. Though Downey had plenty of experience with embroidery, she didn’t know much about quilting. So she asked for volunteers to help her through social media. In less than 24 hours, over 1,000 people had offered to volunteer with the project.

Downey tracked down 100 of those volunteers to contribute, mailing them their squares and asking to receive them completed by Nov. 15, the Washington Post reports.

People working on the project are sharing their progress on Instagram with the hashtag #RitasQuilt. Once the pieces are complete, Downey has 30 quilters in Chicago ready to help put Smith’s quilt together.

“We’re trying to honor her vision as much as possible,” Downey said.

Check out the progress of #RitasQuilt on Instagram. Photo courtesy Shannon Downey.

Downey, the director of development at Advancing Justice Chicago and an adjunct instructor at Columbia College Chicago, has been cross-stitching since she was a kid and recently started taking it more seriously, using it as an outlet to get away from technology.

“I was really tired of being connected to a device 24/7,” she said.

She soon began incorporating activism into her projects by going to estate sales — like the one where she found Smith’s quilt — to find projects that had been left unfinished. After finishing the projects, Downey donates them to Goodwill so they go back into the system, she said.

The National Quilting Museum, located in Kentucky, recently reached out to Downey about including the quilt in its collection once it’s finished.

“I’m hoping Rita’s memory will live on in a public way,” Downey said. “I wanted to really honor this woman who left behind this piece.”


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