This morning somebody on a quilt/art email list wanted to know whether anybody was collecting quilts to send to Haiti. I couldn’t help but groan – here we go again!
Every time there's a disaster the knee-jerk reaction of many folks is to send stuff. Remember after Katrina people were loading trucks with bottled water and the old T-shirts straight off their own backs and god knows what all kinds of other stuff for New Orleans? We might also recall how most of those shipments did not reach actual victims, or at least not until much, much later. (Part of that was due to government incompetence, but part was due to the very nature of ad hoc relief.)
Quilters seem to take this knee-jerk reaction to another level -- sending not just stuff, but handmade stuff.
I think that in planning our response to disasters we need to make distinctions between things that are needed and things that are emotionally pleasing. Immediate needs are far better satisfied by relief organizations that can buy in bulk and have established distribution channels.
Just run down a fast mental checklist – Do they need warm bedding in Haiti (it’s a tropical climate)? If so, do they need quilts, as opposed to fleece blankets or other warmer, more durable coverings? If so, do thousands of people have a nice (but not too nice) quilt sitting around that they would be willing to put in the mail today? If so, can you imagine a more inefficient form of getting the quilts to actual people? Relief agencies who can buy blankets by the container-load can certainly provide ten or a hundred times more blankets for the money than we can individually, and get them there overnight.
In the later aftermath of disaster sometimes people benefit from the emotional payoffs of handmade stuff. For instance, it may be nice for a bereaved/bereft person to get warm vibes from a connection to the individual who made a quilt. It may be even nicer for a bereft person to get an individual gift that incorporates the victim's own story -- as, for instance, the souvenir quilts made of clothing from 9/11 victims, or Operation Kid Comfort, which makes quilts for children depicting their soldier-parents in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But more frequently, I suspect, the lovingly handmade and donated quilt is appreciated no more, and maybe less, than the mass-produced fleece blanket. I also suspect the major benefits of such gifts go to the givers, not the recipients.
I am too young to remember World War 2 but I have read how the famous collection drives where people donated their bacon fat and other household wastes "to the war effort" were actually shams -- they didn't need the bacon fat but the shared sacrifice and enhanced patriotism of such activities were good for people and good for the country. That's fine -- I think shared sacrifice is something the US needs a lot more of these days -- but don't you feel kind of lied-to and patronized by such approaches?
Anyhow, if you want to feel all warm and fuzzy right this minute, send money to an organization with a good reputation for disaster relief, a low percentage of donations diverted to overhead, and a presence on the ground in Haiti. I did that this morning via Lutheran World Relief and I feel fuzzier than if I went down to my studio to make a quilt.