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Making all the difference (Vetaffairs Spring 2019)

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A man and a woman holding up a handmade quilt showing the crest of the RAAF, silhouettes of fighter jets, images of Leo Davies, and more.

Aussie Hero Quilts CEO Jan-Maree Ball presenting a quilt to outgoing Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies AO CSC.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why a quilt, let alone a laundry bag, would mean all that much to someone. But if you’re deployed overseas, away from loved ones for several months, or if you’re ill or wounded or grieving, a quilt or laundry bag that has been made specifically for you by a community of volunteers back in Australia can mean the world.

Aussie Hero Quilts has been making personalised quilts and laundry bags for serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel since its chief executive officer, Jan-Maree Ball, founded the organisation in 2012. Since then, its volunteers have made 11,000 quilts and 22,000 laundry bags. Almost every quilt or bag is personalised with something of significance to the person receiving it, such as their name, the crest of their unit, images of their loved ones, hobbies or passions.

When you’re on deployment and most of the gear around you is the same as everyone else’s, this can be very reaffirming and comforting.

‘Our quilts and laundry bags are a connection to home,’ says Mrs Ball. ‘They’re gifts that say thank you for your service and the sacrifice that you have made to be apart from your loved ones. Our quilts do not have to be works of art, but all are works of the heart.’

Aussie Hero Quilts focuses on quilts and laundry bags because both items are of practical use. The quilts come in handy if you’re in, say, Afghanistan where it can get down to minus 25 in winter. Distinctive laundry bags are useful to ADF personnel because the ones they are issued with are identical to everyone else’s and can be hard to spot when they have to be picked up in a hurry.

Personnel can request their own quilts and how they want them to be personalised, or it can be done by their loved ones. Sometimes commanders or chaplains organise them for their units.

Some people have received these items when their morale is at rock bottom. These include ADF personnel and veterans in hospital going through painful surgery who feel very alone and isolated. When word gets through to Mrs Ball that someone is in that position, she will make absolutely sure that they receive a quilt, and possibly a care package or more. The effect this has can sometimes be transformative.

One veteran received his quilt while he was in a mental health ward. The quilt arrived two days before he planned to take his own life. Receiving his quilt and the hand-written letter led him to cancel his plans.

Mrs Ball is a veteran herself, having served in the RAAF and Navy for 15 years. She had the idea for Aussie Hero Quilts when she discovered that an Australian soldier wounded in Afghanistan had received an American quilt while recuperating in a hospital in Germany.

‘I was deeply touched by the generosity of the Americans but was ashamed that there was nothing from his own country for him,’ she says.

She was conscious too of the way some Vietnam veterans had been treated when they returned from Australia and wanted to do what she could to make sure contemporary veterans were acknowledged. She’s also organised quilts for Vietnam veterans, one of whom said it was the first time he’d been acknowledged for what he did in 50 years.

Mrs Ball works at least six days a week running Aussie Hero Quilts, so barely has time to work on quilts herself anymore. Instead, she coordinates anywhere between 150 and 250 volunteers from across the country. They include partners and friends of serving members, Vietnam veterans, serving and ex-serving ADF members as well as people who have no connection with the armed forces. The oldest volunteer she’s had was 101, the youngest were in kindergarten. They have varying skill levels – she’s keen to keep the operation inclusive – and she’s always looking for more help.

‘My unofficial motto has been “whatever we can do today is more than was being done before”,’ Mrs Ball says. ‘I would love to offer quilts to everyone who deploys. We’ve only recently expanded to look after patrol boats. But I have to keep it within what I’m capable of.’

On Australia Day 2016, she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia – an experience she found ‘absolutely overwhelming’.

‘We are incredibly privileged to be making these quilts that become treasured family heirlooms. I’m really blessed. Not everyone gets to do what they’re passionate about and know that without a doubt it is appreciated and makes a difference.’

If you want to volunteer or would like to request a quilt or laundry bag for someone, go to the Aussie Hero Quilts Facebook Page, or the Aussie Hero Quilts website. Any individual, company or organisation willing to sponsor Aussie Hero Quilts should contact Mrs Ball via email friendsofahq@gmail.com

Read more about Jan-Maree Ball and her experience in and transitioning from the ADF on the Our Veterans webpage of the DVA website.

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