Above and Beyond

At 204 East Main Street in Hogansville, seventeen-year-old Andy Hursey sits at the front of his grandmother’s Hometown Quilt Shop. His hair is slicked back Elvis-style (Johnny Cash, he later corrects me) as he carefully sews a protective cloth face mask, needle in hand and with the store’s landline tucked away in a self-made holster on his right hip. Along with his grandmother Penny Willingham, Hursey and the staff of Hometown Quilt Shop have made 5251 of these masks, which have been sent across the US from Hogansville to California— and even to Canada.

The mask-making project has required great sacrifice from both. For Hursey, twelve-hour volunteering shifts have become the norm since school was canceled in March; for Willingham, her family-owned business that specializes in quilting, embroidery, and repair services has been shutdown since the lockdown began. Several other small businesses in the community quickly followed suit, while those who remained on the front lines often did so without necessary protective equipment.

For the mask-making duo, standing by wasn’t an option.

“I believe when God gives you a talent, you should use it,” Willingham says. Around her hang handmade quilts ranging in size, design, and complexity— a testament to her talent. It’s a skill she learned from her motherin- law Patsy Willingham. What started as her way of helping out quickly led to a lifelong passion for Penny, as the Willingham ladies would soon enter quilting classes together at West Georgia Technical College to hone their trade.

Since then, Penny has put her quilting mastery to good use—and has shared the secrets of her trade with her grandson. In addition to the mask-making project, the patriotic pair has concentrated much of their talent and time giving back to veterans. For Willingham, this work proves to be some of the most important she does.

“This is where my heart is,” she says, leading me to the front of her shop, where a military-style mannequin stands proudly garbed in a handmade red, white, and blue quilt. The patriotic colors match the outside of her shop, which is now decorated with pro-America ribbons, flags, and decorations.

She stops behind the mannequin and smiles. “This is Jesse.”

Jesse, she explains, is named after her father Command Sergeant Major Jesse L. Yearta. Yearta, who spent a lifetime in the service, honorably retired from Fort Hood late in life.

She continues to explain that around him she has placed a Quilt of Valor— quilts designed to honor and comfort veterans. Willingham and Hometown Quilt Shop proudly present veterans with Quilts of Valor on Veteran’s Day—and throughout the year.

“We don’t ever want to miss a veteran,” she explains, talking animatedly now. “We know that if we only present them on Veteran’s Day, we might miss some people, so we do make them throughout the year.”

Additionally, Hometown Quilt Shop creates community quilts for fire and police departments to help children who are affected by unfavorable events.

“I’m always trying to give back to the community,” she says.

Her giving spirit runs in the family. Grandson Andy Hursey, who Willingham notes has been critical to the success of Hometown Quilt Shops recent philanthropic efforts, has logged hundreds of hours giving back to the community.

“When school got canceled, he would do his online classes in the back and then come out front and volunteer,” Willingham explains. “Most weeks, he’s in here 6-7 days a week.”

And that’s only the beginning. Hursey also volunteers across the street at Positive Fields, where he and others work to create face masks for first responders and those in need. According to Willingham, Hursey has shouldered the responsibility well—and of his own volition.

“He’s a fast learner,” she says, adding that the teen often “sews until he can’t anymore,” and that he’s picked up the craft quickly since coming down to help at the shop.

Now, the pair is also working to create prayer flags that are designed to celebrate the city of Hogansville’s 150th birthday. Individuals and business owners are encouraged to stop by Hometown Quilt Shop to purchase an individualized prayer flag that can be customized with a personal prayer for the city.

As for when the shop will open again, Willingham says she’s still not sure.

“We’ll open when I feel comfortable that it’s safe,” she says, noting that unlike other shops that can sanitize effectively, she isn’t able to easily clean fabric. Out of an abundance of caution, she says, Hometown Quilt Shop will remain closed to usual business—citizens can still buy facemasks and prayer flags, among a few other services—until patrons can safely navigate the store and attend quilting classes again.

Until then, however, there’s plenty of work to do in supporting the community— and Willingham, Hursey, and the rest of Hometown Quilt Shop are up to the challenge.