A single mother and raising an infant with a serious injury, Rhona Boutwell needed community programs to help her.
Twenty years later, she is stronger and is now giving back. A Grantsville resident, Boutwell uses creativity to help people who struggle as she once did.
At two days old, her son, Johnny, was given an accidental overdose of heparin for a staph infection he had at birth. The effects of the overdose injured Johnny’s spinal cord. Two years later, Boutwell’s husband left.
Raising a disabled son alone, Boutwell struggled for the first 10 years of Johnny’s life. But Toys for Tots, a foundation of the U.S. Marines, was a program that helped pull her through. The Marine’s goal is “To deliver, through a new toy at Christmas, a message of hope” to youngsters in adverse circumstances.
“Without Toys for Tots, my kid’s Christmas would not be there,” Boutwell said.
As Johnny became more independent as he grew up, Boutwell said she began to look for ways to give back. She decided to pay it forward and volunteered.
Boutwell said she first became an EMT, “to thank the community for their help through difficult times with my son.” Then in 2013, she started to volunteer for Toys for Tots.
At Toys for Tots meetings, fundraiser ideas topped the agenda. Boutwell told the group about her idea of a log cabin quilt top in blues and yellows with a geometric arrangement that created a sunburst in the middle. The group grabbed the idea.
The Yard Sale, a fabric and gift shop in Tooele, agreed to donate time and materials by quilting Boutwell’s top using a long arm quilting machine. Then, Toys for Tots advertised the drawing for the quilt at various fundraisers.
Boutwell, like many other middle-aged women, remembers playing under a quilt while surrounded by aunts and grandmas who were quilting above her. Boutwell’s first quilting memory is playing under quilt frames at her Aunt Bell’s house at about age 4. When her grandmother died in 1986, Boutwell asked for those frames.
Boutwell sewed blankets and clothes to keep her Barbie dolls warm, sewed her high school wardrobe, and sewed her way right into her grandmother’s 100-year-old quilting frames, which she received and still uses for tying quilts for family.
“My kids get the tied quilts, everyone else gets the quilted ones,” she laughs. “Just like the shoemaker’s family. I don’t have any quilts, I give them all as gifts.”
She often uses the phrase “quilted it off.” It means making a sandwich out of the top — the batting — and the backing by stitching it together in some fashion.
Her log cabin quilt top in 2013 began the tradition of a quilt fundraiser for Toys for Tots. In 2014, Johnny’s 12 hospitalizations consumed Boutwell’s time. In December 2015, Toys for Tots wanted fundraising ideas again, and of course, there was another quilt.
In 2015, Boutwell reconnected with James McDonald, a high school friend, who came from a family of 14 that together contributed 120 years to military service. Boutwell said McDonald’s 12 years of service caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He also suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and needed a liver transplant.
“He was very patriotic,” Boutwell said. “I thought maybe [a quilt] would give him inspiration to fight.”
In quilt shops, she fell in love with a military-themed pattern with a soldier’s silhouette and the quote, “Home of the Free Because of the Brave.”
She created the quilt to give to McDonald that Christmas. However, his liver failed, and he died on Dec. 8, 2015.
She stitched the quilt for him, but it was never given. As a single father of two daughters, McDonald loved Toys for Tots. Boutwell felt he would appreciate the gift of his quilt to the foundation.
Boutwell knew that Country FanFest, the multi-day outdoor concert at Deseret Peak Complex, sponsored Toys for Tots. She suggested that FanFest stars autograph the quilt to increase the value, and auction it off at FanFest 2016.
At the festival, many stars, including Logan Brill and Joe Diffie, walked into the festival’s back room to autograph articles for charity and went directly to the quilt, Boutwell said.
The flag at the top and the soldier’s silhouette framing the words “Home of the free because of the brave” created a strong emotional response in Brill and Diffie, she said.
Between acts, FanFest 2016 brought out Boutwell’s quilt and the admiration was audible.
“It was exhilarating to see my quilt up there,” she said. “I pulled out my phone and showed [the people around me] pictures of the quilt and told them ‘I made that.’”
At the FanFest 2016 auction, a couple from Layton bid $1,475 for the quilt. They told Boutwell that it was going up on their wall.
Boutwell connects to the military in many ways with grandfathers and a stepfather who served in World Wars I and II, a father in Korea, and an uncle who was missing in action in World War II.
Boutwell said she wanted to “kick it up” in 2017. She would design two quilts — both with soldier’s crosses — one for FanFest and one for auction in December. One quilt would be pictorial, the other would focus on a quote.
“My Toys for Tots quilts are not fun, but inspirational,” she said.
Boutwell likes the storyline of the quilt where the soldier holds the dog tags suggesting remembering or prayer, but she feels the quilt with the quote “We don’t know them all, but we owe them all” has the strongest emotional impact. The pictorial one is quilted with a recurring dog tag motif. The stitching on the quilt spells out “USA.”
Searching for military fabrics for the quilts, Boutwell shops for fabric from Utah to Nashville. One of her favorite stores is the famous Missouri Star Fabric Store. Right now, she said, she has enough fabric to make four military-themed quilts.
The drawing for Boutwell’s first 2017 quilt was held last Saturday at Country FanFest 2017, with a Magna couple winning. The ticket amount totaled $1,200. Boutwell said Toys for Tots will draw for her other quilt she made this year in December, when Marines are delivering Toys for Tots gifts to the community.
Supporters can purchase tickets for the drawing this Saturday at the Punishment at the Peak Demolition Derby at Deseret Peak Complex and at the Lantern Fest in September. Prices are $3 for one ticket, $5 for two or five tickets for $10.
Locally, Retired Marine Chief Warrant Officer 4 Gary Holewinski and his wife, Anita Holewenski, lead the local Toys for Tots group. They accept donations of new, unwrapped toys, as well as money. All contributions stay in Tooele County for toys, books and stocking stuffers. For more information, email email@example.com.
Boutwell is determined to continue what she has begun and to keep on making quilts for people who are now in a place she once was.
“Everyone tells me I need to put my quilts in the county fair,” she said. “I never do because I always give them to somebody — I don’t want to wait for another six months for the county fair. This is my way of giving back. I want people to realize giving back is just as important as getting it. I’m trying to pay it forward.”