PITTSBURGH — This holiday season, Seneca Valley School District students kept in mind those affected by the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and offered them the gift of comfort.
Seneca Valley's Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) Club decided to hand-make quilts to show their support for the synagogue, which was the scene of an Oct. 27 shooting in which 11 people died and seven more were injured.
Tree of Life's program director, Alex Speck, met with the students who were presenting and donating their projects on Wednesday at the Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh.
Speck thanked the students for their thoughts and efforts and said both were appreciated greatly.
When the students showed their quilts to Rodef Shalom receptionist JoAnn Ruffing, she began to cry happy tears.
“(It) is absolutely beautiful,” she told the students while she wiped at her eyes. “Oh, thank you.”
Seneca Valley senior Kathryn Messer said the project was important to the club because they wanted to show their support for their community.
“We see that they're hurting and struggling,” Kathryn said. “We wanted to just give them something to make them happy.”
FCCLA Adviser Tiffany Smietana said the girls didn't have a sewing background, “but they wanted to learn” so they could give this gift to Tree of Life.
“Every year we have to do a chapter service project,” Smietana said. “We decided to come up with something to help the Tree of Life, and instead of donating money, we wanted to have a symbol of remembrance.”
Smietana said the students were inspired to make a quilt for the synagogue after seeing the incident become national news.
Kathryn said she and the other girls saw a need for something to help Tree of Life heal.
“All of Pittsburgh saw what happened and cared about what happened,” Kathryn said. “There are communities that want them to heal and help. We all knew immediately from the start we wanted it to happen. It was 'how are we going to do the squares' and 'how are we going to put it all together?'”
Kathryn joked it was when the club realized they had more than 400 squares that they decided they would no longer be able to make just “one giant quilt.”
Olivia Bernd, another senior club member, said she thinks the quilt symbolizes a greater source of hope.
“I feel like we made this quilt to show that there's not a lot of us here,” Olivia said. “You don't have to have a big group of people to do things that matter to the community. It can just be one person, and that one person can make a difference. I know it's cliche, but that one person can make such a difference, especially after a tragedy.”
Sophomore Ashley Pelloni said she wants everyone to understand that they're not alone.
“We made this quilt as just a small gesture so they know there are people backing them up and supporting them,” she said.
Smietana said this message was one that she believed would stick with her students.
“To know that they could play a part in just making a few people feel better will have a lasting impact on them,” Smietana said, “and seeing the faces of the people who received the quilt and how happy they were.”
Before the production of the quilts, Seneca Valley also held a fundraiser for Tree of Life in November.
However, the students decided that the offer of comfort in the form of a blanket filled with messages of hope, peace and love was a more impactful showing of community support.
“It's basically our love that we show for them,” said senior Rohita Korwa when describing this project.
The club extended an invitation to contribute to this special message to all of the Seneca Valley community. Smietana said they expected to put together 80 patches for a large quilt, and were surprised by the much larger total that resulted in the three decorative quilts.
Kathryn said she was proud of her community, but especially proud of “every single girl in this group.”
“It warms my heart that they were so willing,” she said. “There were times no one wanted to come because we were so exhausted — there were tests and essays and working — and everyone found time to come. Every single person in this group put their heart and their soul into those quilts, and so did every student at school who made a quilt square.”