Peace by piece

Celebrity waiters fundraiser helps Haitian women through PeaceQuilts.

Clifford the Big Red Dog greeted guests as they filed into the Federated Church Saturday night, April 28, for the star-studded PeaceQuilts Celebrity Waiters Dinner fundraiser. PeaceQuilts, the brainchild of Island artist Jeanne Staples, is an economic development endeavor helping Haitian women form artisan group cooperatives to create stunning folk art quilts and a collection of affordable hand-stitched products. Although the only canine, Clifford was not the only recognizable celebrity. Waiters Colin Ewing, Donna Rhoades, Anne Osterholm, Bill Veno, Jeanne Ogden, Lisa Brown, and Michael Brisson enthusiastically adorned themselves as their favorite character, ranging from Wonder Woman to Lady Gaga, the Swedish Chef from the Muppets, Braveheart, Indiana Jones, Cruella De Vil from “101 Dalmatians” to Hawaiian Queen Kapiolani. Their goal was to earn the most tips by sweet-talking, groveling, withholding utensils, showering a table with sweet Swedish Fish, or bribing guests for money with homemade Scottish shortbread. Diners tipped accordingly, and all the money contributed to the funds raised throughout the night. Enhancing the festive air was the delectable Italian dinner prepared by Joe Capobianco, Julie Williamson, Herb Ward, and their culinary staff. “I started the sauce at 6 am this morning,” Joe explained as he finally took a moment to get a bite of his own pasta dish himself. Sheriff Bob Ogden, who had not known of PeaceQuilts but said he was duly impressed, “not having known the background behind it,” masterfully emceed the evening, keeping the lively pace.

There was a silent auction as well, where one would be hard-pressed to decide among the enticing donations to bid on. “The business community and individual donors were extremely generous in contributing to the silent auction some wonderful and unique items, such as an original cartoon drawing by Clifford the Big Red Dog creator Norman Bridwell, donated by his widow Norma, and a Ropes Challenge Course donated by Bob Ogden and his wife Jeanne. There was some robust bidding for a number of items, including dinner at l’Etoile and Cape Air tickets,” Staples said.

The place was jammed. “It was a completely full house. We had about 75 dinner guests, and about 30 volunteers, including the waiters and bussers, the kitchen crew, and others running the event, with several more helping set up. PeaceQuilts exists almost entirely by volunteers, with just one part-time paid staff person, Carolyn Stoeber, U.S. program coordinator, of about 15 to 20 who make up the core of our workers, but many more who pitch in to help with events, special projects, and other activities. We rely on volunteer support, and are always looking for more people to join the team,” Staples said.

PeaceQuilts launched some 11 years ago. Several years before, Margaret Penicaud, president and founder of Martha’s Vineyard Fish Farm for Haiti, had traveled to Haiti and brought back the women’s exquisitely embroidered table linens along with paintings, metalwork, and sculpture. All but the lovely linens sold. No one uses table linens anymore, nor do they display them on the walls, so how could the women’s fine needlework be turned into an art that would sell?

Staples hit upon quilts as a marketable solution. While it was an inspired and viable economic idea, she didn’t know how to quilt. Undeterred, and a lifelong artist herself, she went to several local Martha’s Vineyard masters to learn the fundamentals.

She traveled to Haiti in 2006 with volunteers and quantities of donated fabric, sewing machines, and supplies. The project soon blossomed when Staples was joined by master quilter Maureen Matthews McClintock, so that by 2009, PeaceQuilts had produced more than 100 hand-stitched Haitian quilts. Jeanne says the endgame is to exit gracefully, and they have moved into a coaching and mentoring phase to help the women learn administrative and marketing skills in order to become more independent. At the same time, the vibrant Haitian folk art quilts have become a recognized genre within the larger quilting world. In fact, in 2009, the Bennington Museum organized a touring exhibition, thus putting the Haitian women’s work on the map.

Staples shared that “the best part of the evening for me was seeing how much fun everyone was having. Guests really got into the spirit of the event, enjoying the antics of the ‘celebrities’ while making them work for their tips. The kids who volunteered as ‘bus boys and girls’ got super-invested in helping their waiter climb the leaderboard to raise the most money. There were some valuable lessons learned by these young people about working hard and contributing their energy to something that does good in the world.”

Staples said she didn’t have an individual tally for the celebrity waiters, but she has a rough figure of how much money the event raised.

“I don’t have the individual tally for the waiters at the moment, but it was a real horse race by the end of the evening, with Lady Gaga edging out Braveheart by $1,” Staples said. “We’re still tallying the numbers. It looks like we raised well over our goal of $5,000, probably closer to $7,000.”

PeaceQuilts, a 501(c)(3) economic development project, provides equipment, supplies, training, educational opportunities, and other support to help Haitian women establish small independent sewing cooperatives so they can earn a living wage — to feed their families, improve housing, and educate their children. For more information and to make a donation, visit haitipeacequilts.org or call 508-274-1104.