Nancy Minear
Nancy Minear, research & evaluation director for Student Affairs, showed co-workers how to quilt on their lunch break. Now the group, called the UCI Stars, makes quilts for cancer patients. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Visitors to the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UC Irvine Medical Center often notice something different about the oncology unit, where patients can spend long hours undergoing chemotherapy. Many there ward off the chill by wrapping themselves not in boring hospital blankets but in colorful quilts — each a handmade gift from a band of volunteers called the UCI Stars.

“Whenever we make a quilt, we send the patients good wishes and hope they get well,” says Rachel Maus, a founding member of the group who retired in 2008 as director of finance at UCI’s engineering school. “There’s nothing better than to hear that one of our quilts encouraged a patient.”

An informal crew of 16 staff members and retirees, the UCI Stars recently received the 2009 Living Our Values staff team award for quilting on behalf of cancer patients and charities. Living Our Values Awards are given annually by Chancellor Michael Drake to staff, faculty and students whose actions best embody UCI’s values of respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment, empathy, appreciation and fun.

The group started stitching in 2002, when Nancy Minear, research & evaluation director for Student Affairs, brought a quilt she’d made to the office to show co-workers.

“Jan Harper (now retired from the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost) followed me around, wanting to know how to make one. Then other people expressed interest in learning to quilt, so I said, ‘Bring a needle and thread and I’ll show you,’ ” Minear recalls. “Since then we’ve made hundreds of quilts. I guess we just got carried away.”

They began holding weekly sewing bees in Aldrich Hall during their lunch breaks and taking field trips to fabric stores. Soon the women were producing quilts by the dozen, but, as Maus notes, “You can only give them to so many family members.” Together, they decided to make a large, blue-and-yellow, star-pattern quilt to auction for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. That gave the group its name and purpose.

“We were already making the quilts, and we wanted them to do some good,” Harper says. “After we made the first quilt for the Avon walk, I said, ‘We need a link to UCI,’ so we started donating them to Chao. In 2004, I had ovarian cancer, so I’m very aware of how important these quilts are to cancer patients.”

UCI Stars now create one major quilt a year to auction for charity; so far they’ve raised about $20,000 for the Avon walk and the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine’s Women’s Wellness Day.

Members contribute fabric squares and piece them together into a quilt top before turning it over to a professional quilter, Marilyn Thomas of Atlanta. A longtime volunteer, Thomas stitches the top, batting and back together with a long-arm quilting machine. The UCI Stars then bind the edges to finish the quilt.

The group also makes smaller lap quilts and crocheted shawls, booties and scarves for patients, as well as caps for those who have lost their hair.

“With so many challenges in our patients’ lives, these quilts have special meaning to them,” says Donna Baker, licensed clinical social worker at Chao. She receives 10 to 12 quilts a month from the UCI Stars, which she distributes to newly diagnosed cancer patients. “They’re touched that someone would care enough to take so much time and effort,” Baker says.

After several quilters retired from UCI, the weekly sewing bees were replaced with monthly meetings at Maus’ Mission Viejo home. But the group hopes to attract new members and resume on-campus gatherings.

“We’re not a club; there are no rules or officers. It’s just come as you are,” says Mary Chappell-Davee, the UCI Stars’ unofficial historian. “It’s our small way of giving back and helping women’s health issues.”

2009 Living Our Values staff team award recipients: UCI Stars Lisa Anderson, Susan Bertram, Jennifer Cartnal, Mary Chappell-Davee, Lisa Cornish, Christine Dacanay, Melissa Falkenstien, Cindy Fern, Nancy Gasparotti, Noriko Low, Rachel Maus, Nancy Minear, Stacey Murren, Lin Nguyen, Patricia Price and Marika Walter.