On Monday, Cider Mill School’s fourth graders enjoyed a tribute to a program that’s been organized yearly at the school for 25 years:  quilting for a cause. Led by assistant principal Ellen Tuckner, the celebration recounted the many successes of the program, and honored its many participants, most notably one of its founders, Becky Hudspeth.

Always a special day for Hudspeth, this ceremony was particularly bittersweet as it also marked the end of the successful program, as after 25 years Hudspeth is retiring. She spoke to students during the ceremony, reminding them that one person can make a difference in the world, and that by participating in the making of the quilts, they had made the world a better place.

An annual labor of love that produced quilts for babies with difficult beginnings, the quilting program at Cider Mill was started in 1990 by Hudspeth and her dear friend K.C. Fuller when their own children were fourth graders at Cider Mill. Since then, more than 8,000 students have participated in the program, and more than 700 quilts have been made and donated.

Hudspeth said that fourth grade had proven to be the perfect age for students to really get the most out of it.

“They are still young enough to remember the meaning of having something special like a blankie or quilt, but old enough to understand the meaning of compassion.”

Each time Hudspeth introduced the project to fourth graders, she said she always started with a presentation. Children were asked to recall their favorite blankie or loved item from early childhood, and then say the word that best describes how that special item made them feel.

Each year the children brought up the same words:  “loved, safe, protected, cozy, warm, happy.” The quilt project gave these fourth graders the opportunity to give those same feelings to babies in need. “This is their chance to give a baby who they will never meet a hug,” Hudspeth explained.

Making a quilt is no simple task. The process began with the students. Their job was to design a picture that would make a baby smile and then paint it onto a fabric square during art class. From there, a team of parent volunteers with sewing machines, needles, rotary cutters, scissors and ironing boards descended on the school and the massive task of pulling together each quilt began. To create just one finished quilt takes up to eight hours of labor. Hudspeth’s group made 28 quilts this year, and she said that previous years yielded even more, based on larger class sizes.

Students take great pride in their quilts. As the “quilt ladies” (as they are known to the students) worked in the halls of the school, the children visited the area with their classroom teachers to view the quilting process and watch as their artwork became a piece of the final product. Children were often invited to step on the pedal of a sewing machine, and to see the many steps of building a quilt. Ironing, pinning, sewing all took place right in a Cider Mill hallway for students to see.

Once the quilts were finished, they were sent to various organizations for those special babies who need a Cider Mill hug. Over the years, the quilts have traveled to four continents, including to orphanages in Kenya, Romania and China, to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, to victims of the tsunami, and to Project Sunshine in New York City.

But often they went to local babies, too. This year, many quilts will be donated to Circle of Care, a Wilton-based organization that provides aide to families of children who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Longtime contributor to the program, art teacher Michael Galullo presented Hudspeth with an award from the Connecticut General Assembly for her tireless and outstanding work on behalf of children everywhere. Hudspeth also received a quilt made by the fourth grade teachers and school staff. She thanked the many contributors and supporters, naming the art teachers, fourth grade teachers, administrative staff, parent and community volunteers, custodians, the PTA and of course, the students. Her co-chairs, Melinda Connelly and Lillian Lebek-Cooke were also recognized, along with longtime participant and previous co-chair Rachelle Bernabei.

Representing their individual classes, several fourth graders stood at the podium and recounted what making the quilts meant to them. One student noted, “Participating in this project gave me a warm feeling inside because so many people helped.” Another felt that she was able to give “less fortunate babies a present to hold onto.” Tuckner read a poem written by fourth grader Ella Donovan, entitled “I Believe.”

Sadly, K.C. Fuller passed away four years ago, and Hudspeth used the initials K and C to rename the program the Kind and Caring Quilt Project for her friend. Hudspeth feels strongly that this program is K.C.’s legacy. At the end of the program, Hudspeth gifted a “Legacy Quilt” for the program, which includes a fabric square to represent all 745 quilts that were made over the program’s twenty-five year history.

Pictured above: Quilt project co-chairs Becky Hudspeth, Lillian Lebek-Cooke and Melinda Connelly at Cider Mill School, holding Legacy Quilt that features a fabric square to represent all 745 quilts that have been made over the past 25 years. The Legacy Quilt will be hung in Cider Mill School.