International potluck and quilt exhibit brings area residents together

By Gretchen Teske, Mt. Pleasant News


The second annual international potluck was held at Iowa Wesleyan in the social hall and served over 80 people. Brave participants fought the snow to come in and share a dish on Sunday, April 8. Over 40 dishes and desserts were prepared by Henry County residents and IW students in an effort to unite the community.

The potluck first became an idea in the fall of 2015 when Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors (Iowa WINS) was formed in response to the global refugee crisis. The organization is run by volunteers and works to provide social services such as tutoring, to those in need.

Tammy Shull spearheaded the event in an effort to develop conversation around the crisis. She says Mt. Pleasant has a history of welcoming refugees and wanted to campaign the town as a safe place for them.

?We wanted to present our community as a welcoming place,? she said. However refugees are generally placed in cities with larger populations in order for greater quantities of them to stay together.

Despite not being able to welcome new refugees, Shull did not give up and decided to host the event to honor the variety of nationalities already in Mt. Pleasant. The potluck offered participants a chance to experience new cultures through food and conversation.

Minutes before the event began, there were only a few dishes on the tables. Worry set in as she began to wonder if there would be enough food for everyone. As people shuffled in from the cold, more dishes began to appear until over 40 filled the table. Participants brought dishes representative of their culture to share with the crowd. ?We all love the food that we all know how to make,? said Shull.

Bringing people together through handmade creation was the theme of the night as Stacey Kitakis (Hurlin), the director of the Art Life Society presented her art project, Quilts That Unite Us.

The project features quilt squares created around the world by refugees. The patches are drawn by all ages and tell the story of the creator. The squares are then made into quilts by various volunteer organizations around the globe.

The project first came to fruition when Kitakis was in the Cedar Rapids airport. She saw a quilt comprised of student artwork and decided to adopt a similar project of her own.

Kitakis is Greek-American and felt compelled to volunteer to work with refugees traveling through Greece, seeking solace. She handed out quilt squares to refugees and encouraged them to create. She remarked that the opportunity to create something sparked joy and peace in those she encountered and gave her a similar sense of fulfillment.

During her 11-week volunteering session, she collected 475 squares that were later turned into quilts. ?Anything we can do that shows we have a lot more in common than we think, that?s where my attention goes,? she said.

She has now collected over 769 squares from 74 countries and plans to create quilts of them all. Each quilt is given its own theme based on patches that are collected. Quilts vary in size and shape and are not limited to their country of origin. ?This is really a voice for people even if they don?t speak the language,? she said.

Currently, the oldest participants of the project were 94 years old and the youngest was 4 weeks. Kitakis feels this project gives hope and a chance for self expression to those seeking refuge. The project will be turned into a two-year tour in 2019. Details are still being patched over, but the works will be displayed in museums and art galleries. The pieces are currently not for sale but any profit made will be donated.