Cathy Alston-Kearney: The Heritage Quilters

By Liza Roberts

WARRENTON, N.C. — From a young age, Cathy Alston-Kearney, the founding executive director of the nonprofit Warren Family Institute in Warrenton, N.C., has known the importance of being a generous member of her community.

“I think it’s just inbred, in a sense,” she says. “I learned from the example of my grandparents and the community in which I grew up: The expectation is that you are engaged in helping other folks, and involved in the community in which you live.”

That pervading sense led Alston-Kearney early on to a degree in public health, has informed her career as head of a community development corporation that serves 350 families a year, and lately has driven her desire to co-found a giving circle.

But the Heritage Quilters didn’t start out that way.

In 2001, the group was formed so that its members, then 10 in all, could share their love of quilting.

“The initial invitation was: If you like quilting, bring a quilt and introduce yourself with a quilt story,” she says. “Some of us brought quilts that had been made for us; others brought pieces they had made themselves.”

Alston-Kearney brought one of her grandmother’s quilts. She wasn’t yet a quilter, but found herself eager to continue the family tradition.

“We all share the memory of the role quilts played in our families,” she says.

The group, which now numbers more than 30, was diverse from the beginning, with members, both men and women, ranging in age from 14 to 82.

But shared time over the needle and thread made it clear that the Heritage Quilters had more than quilting in common.

“Many of us are in the nonprofit sector, or are educators, and we’re already passionate about the things that are happening in our community,” she says.

As a result, the Heritage Quilters have been eager to contribute.  They’ve made lap-quilts for nursing home patients, participated in local arts council and educational events, and loaned quilts for display in historic homes.

“We really haven’t had a formal game plan, but we’ve been willing to give,” Alston-Kearney says.

Then, when she and Jereann King, a fellow Heritage Quilter and Warrenton Family Institute founder, attended the N.C. Gives conference in 2006 and learned about the growing trend of giving circles, “it was like a light bulb went off,” Alston-Kearney says. “It was an opportunity to extend our giving. We brought the concept back to the group.”

Since then, the Heritage Quilters have “gone through the gyrations any giving circle would,” as they figure out how they want to raise their funds, and where they want those funds to go.

They’ve decided to place the funds they’ve already raised at the Triangle Community Foundation, for a start.

While some members of the group are “not actively interested” in the operations of the giving circle, and are content to keep to their quilting, others are eager to contribute their own funds and to raise additional money.

As far as the Heritage Quilters are concerned, that kind of diversity is just fine.

“Everyone’s making some sort of contribution,” says Alston-Kearney, likening the process to making a quilt.

The next step is a big one: “Thinking strategically” about where the Heritage Quilters want their funds to go.

“We’ve always been broadly interested in educational issues,” she says, but some members, understandably, have particularly projects close to their hearts. “It’s going to be a conversation.”

Cathy Alston-Kearney, founding executive director of the nonprofit Warren Family Institute in Warrenton, N.C.

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