Hometown Hero: Group ‘blankets’ vets with gratitude

Renee LaFranca wages wars with needles — not guns.

As founder of a local sewing group of the national Quilts of Valor Foundation, she and a passel of friends get together twice monthly at Stitch’n Quilt in Mableton to make large, comfy quilts to present to war veterans. Lt. Col. Bob Orsi of Douglasville, who is on the last year of an Army career that has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia was a recent recipient.

LaFranca’s group, called Freedom Quilters, gets together twice monthly in Mableton. Orsi’s wife, Joanie, runs a companion group that meets monthly at her Pickleweeds Quilt Shop in Douglasville.

It takes several weeks of hard work to make each quilt, said LaFranca.

Frances Brooks, 69, of Dacula, state coordinator for the non-profit group, said groups have been organized across the state and nation, and that so far more than 104,500 quilts have been awarded to veterans of wars going back to World War II.

“We are saying ‘thank you’ for your service,” she said. “I have requests now for 73 quilts. It can take six months for a person who’s nominated to get a quilt” because each “takes a lot of hard sewing.”

But they are appreciated.

Recently, Orsi was presented a large quilt by LaFranca, 48.

“It’s a great honor, very special,” he said. “I was very touched. It showed that these people who are home are thinking of soldiers who are deployed. This means a lot. The hardest part of being deployed is being away from home.”

Not long ago, LaFranca presented a quilt to her husband, Vietnam veteran Bill LaFranca, 66, who sees his as a symbol that “people are more aware and appreciative of our sacrifice.” When his was a presented at a ceremony that he thought was for another vet, “it just blew me away. Up to that point I had never had anybody go out of their way to say ‘thank you’. I’m very thankful.”

So is Bradley Kies, 66, of Snellville, also a Vietnam combat veteran who was overcome with emotion when “three ladies came to my house” for a presentation.

“I just couldn’t stop crying,” he said. “I had all three women hugging me at the same time.”

“Many people sew for the foundation because it’s a good way to give back,” said Joanie LaFranca.

“I’ve had people say this means more to them than any military honor they got as a veteran,” she said. “These men stood in line to take a bullet for the country. This is my service to my country.”

Orsi’s wife, Joanie, said her group gets together every third Monday, and quilts are made with donated fabric.

She said people who want to help make quilts can contact her shop or go through the national foundation’s website to find a group nearer to their homes.

“Most quilters are seniors,” Brooks said. “We need to get the young people involved.”

Susan Gordon of Lawrenceville, executive director of Quilts of Valor, said “our mission is to cover those veterans and service members who have been touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.”

And that mission, Kies said, is being accomplished.

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