Bug Bites and Blanketeers

by: Karen Raber

 

It was a simple blanket, really. Nothing fancy or extraordinary could be noted about it. But to the little one clutching it, it was anything but simple and ordinary. To him, it was a fuzzy layer of comfort and security in a world turned upside-down. It offered reassurance when a lady entered the room with syringes and glass bottles. It was warmth in the unfamiliar bed with cold sheets. Pudgy hands clasped the fuzziness closer.

At the church fellowship hall gathered an ordinary group of people. There was nothing regal or stately about their gathering, but there was more to them than met the eye. These ladies (and gentlemen) were people with generous amounts of love and compassion for children in need. They gathered with one goal—to make blankets. They snipped and sewed, knotted and pieced, enjoying every moment. These people had been bitten by the “blanket bug.”

The blanket bug (aka: “a passionate desire to be involved with Project Linus”) attacks those with big hearts and a desire to help and is no respecter of age. School children, retired couples, young mothers, and teens all come together for one purpose: making blankets for Project Linus.

Project Linus, a non-profit organization, distributes hand-made blankets to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need. It was started in 1995 after an article titled “Joy to the World” appeared in the Christmas Eve edition of Parade magazine. The article featured a small, downy-haired child named Laura. The article said:

“Laura has unusual compassion for others,” Charlotte Barry-Williams of Oceanside, California, says of her daughter, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 1993. “I guess part of the reason is that she has experienced so much pain herself.” A special “blankie” has helped Laura, 3, get through more than two years of intensive chemotherapy. She takes it to the hospital with her when she goes for treatment. When she was first diagnosed, 97 percent of her bone marrow contained cancerous cells. Although chemotherapy has helped eradicate the cancer, she has had to endure nausea, high fevers, and the loss of her hair. An allergic reaction at one point caused her to lose vital signs. “She doesn’t understand what cancer means,” her mother says. “She’s a very joyous and happy person, very curious.” Her mother hopes Laura can start preschool next spring.

A woman named Karen Loucks read the article and decided to provide homemade security blankets to Denver’s Rocky Mountain Children’s Cancer Center, and Project Linus was born. Soon others were starting local “chapters” of Project Linus in their own hometowns and, slowly, it began to spread.

Although blankets still find their way to Rocky Mountain Children’s Cancer Center, they are no longer the only recipients. Each chapter of Project Linus is responsible to distribute blankets to needy or traumatized children, newborn to age 18, in their own area. The blankets are distributed to many organizations, including hospitals, pregnancy crisis centers, children’s services, and children’s homes, as well as to individuals in the community.

In 1999, after the terrible school shooting at Columbine High School, the chapters of Project Linus in Denver found themselves suddenly in need of a very large quantity of blankets, and quickly. Chapters all over the country pitched in and held “blanket bees.” The blankets were all sent to Denver where they were distributed. The blanket bees were a huge success, and Project Linus learned that they had a network of people who wanted to help.

That was the beginning of National Make a Blanket Day, a day set aside to bring awareness to the mission of Project Linus. The official date for National Make a Blanket Day is always the third Saturday in February but may be changed to a date that works better for the chapter coordinator. Collectively, the chapters create and contribute 75,000 to 100,000 blankets on National Make a Blanket Day! Many chapter coordinators, however, plan more than one blanket day throughout the year.

Project Linus calls their volunteers “blanketeers.” Blanketeers create blankets in all sizes and styles. Although some sewing enthusiasts piece together intricate quilts, other blanket types are equally welcome, such as tied comforters, fleece blankets, crocheted or knitted afghans, and receiving blankets. The only requirements Project Linus has is that all blankets must be hand-made, washable, free from pins, and come from smoke-free environments due to allergy reasons.

The Holmes County Chapter

Tami Bucklew, a resident of Clark, Ohio, heard of Project Linus and wished to be involved, but after finding that there were no local chapters, she dismissed the idea. Her children were young and life was busy. But then, after her father-in-law passed away in 2007, Tami’s mother-in-law, Jaunita Bucklew, found out about the chapter in Loudonville, OH. Jaunita loved to sew and wanted Tami to help her start a chapter for Holmes County. Tami loved sewing herself, so the two of them decided to launch a chapter together. At first, response was slow. Few people had heard of Project Linus. But then, as word traveled around and the local paper featured several articles about the project, things began to shape up fast. In fact, it was amazing how the community stepped up to help.

The Bucklews planned blanket-making days in the basement of the local library. As the volunteers began to arrive, Tami realized that they would be there for the day and would need lunch. Tami didn’t enjoy soliciting, but found herself at supermarkets, asking if they would be willing to donate a meat-and-cheese tray to the local chapter of Project Linus. The folks at the supermarket would say, “Is this something new? We haven’t heard of it.” They would donate what Tami asked for, and she would buy the rest.

It wasn’t long, however, until local businesses became familiar with Project Linus and wanted to donate. They would generously offer food items or supplies, and local print shops printed brochures free of charge. When Tami came to pick things up at a grocery store, they would ask, “Is there anything else you need? How about buns?” Tami would answer that she was going to buy them. “No, no,” they would reply, “we’ll donate them!” The generosity was incredible!

When the ladies heard of the extra effort Tami was putting into the meals, they said, “You are working a full-time job in addition to Project Linus; why don’t we all bring a dish, and you won’t have to worry about lunch.” So, at following blanket days, lunch arrived with the ladies, and the tables were loaded with all kinds of good food.

Although most of the blanketeers were from Holmes County, some of them traveled great distances to participate. One year, Walt Disney offered tickets to Disney Land to anyone who had proof that they volunteered at a local charity or organization. People wanted to volunteer with Project Linus and contacted their local chapters to see if they could help. Some of these chapters said they weren’t planning anything at the time, and finally, they were referred to the Holmes County Chapter. Tami told them she was planning a blanket day and they were welcome to come. Volunteers came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia, and while some came for that day only, almost two-thirds of them kept coming back to subsequent blanket days! They loved it.

Sometimes people would call and say, “This is such a good program, but I can’t sew. Is there any way that I can help?” Tami asked them if they would like to learn how to make a no-sew blanket. Often, they wanted to but didn’t think they could. Tami would reply, “Yes, you can. If you want to get involved, come to blanket day!” There, everyone helped each other, and everyone was sad to see the day end.

Teachers also found out about the program and asked Tami to come to their classrooms and tell the children about Project Linus. The teachers then arranged for parents to come in and help the class make simple blankets. The children loved the fact that they were helping other children.

As the number of volunteers grew, the space available at the library rapidly became insufficient. Some Amish ladies, who had been bitten by the bug, offered to have the blanket days at their homes, but soon, even they didn’t have enough room. It was then that one of the ladies from Martin’s Creek Mennonite church said, “We have a large fellowship hall at our church. It would only be right that we offer it for blanket days.” It proved to be an excellent location for the project.

Ladies would bring their sewing machines and sit along the walls, sewing. The center of the room was set up with tables where people would be cutting and knotting comforters, while some crocheted or knitted. Sometimes, there were more volunteers than table space!

The blanketeers would sew a silky Project Linus tag to each of the blankets, and attach a sweet poem card. Then they were put into plastic grocery bags to be given to the children. Tami didn’t care for the plastic grocery bags. Somehow, they just didn’t have a special feel. At one of the blanket days, Tami asked the other blanketeers what they thought of turning some of the smaller pieces of fabric into pillowcases to hold the blankets. They answered with a spontaneous, “Yes! Let’s do it!” Now, in addition to the silky tags and poem cards, the recipients enjoyed a lovely pillowcase as well.

People from surrounding counties who experienced the generosity of Project Linus wished they had a chapter in their area in which to participate. Tami told them she couldn’t start one for them, but they were welcome to join Holmes County. They did—and the project kept blossoming. Tami says, “To this day I have to just shake my head at how it grew. People ask me, ‘Well, wasn’t it a lot of work?’ I say, not really. It was a community effort. I could never have done this alone. It’s all about them (the volunteers)—not about me! There’s no way one person or a small group could have done all of this. It takes big, caring, compassionate hearts and a community like this. It can’t be done by one person.”

Much of the material for blanket days was generously donated. Blanketeers would come across fabrics they liked at thrift stores and bring them along. Sometimes stores donated fabric, and at other times they would call and offer seasonal fabrics at heavily discounted prices. “We never wasted anything,” Tami said. “The ladies came up with creative ways to use everything. Some of the Amish girls would offer to sew together short, otherwise unusable pieces of batting to make tied comforters. Sometimes, when we received coarse materials unsuitable for children’s blankets, we would bundle them up and donate them to a local charity who used them for other purposes.”

The giving was so generous that Tami started to store the supplies in her basement. Finally, there were two rooms stuffed with supplies! It was then that Tami’s husband, Craig, said, “We really shouldn’t be keeping all this stuff in our house. It could be a fire hazard.” So, Tami rented a storage unit. When one of Tami’s avid blanketeers, Karen Lamp, found out, she asked if Tami was paying for the storage unit herself. She was, so Lamp came up with another creative idea. She offered to take the pieces of fabric that weren’t suitable and make “scrap bags” to sell at her craft store. The proceeds went toward the storage unit.

Sometimes the chapter needed certain supplies, but because Tami didn’t enjoy asking for things, she jotted them on a wish list. When people called to ask what they could do, she would mention the items on the list, and soon the chapter had just what they needed.

Another area of generosity was when Karen Lamp and her friends offered to pick up the Amish ladies who were hiring drivers to take them to blanket days. It was a day of unselfish service in many ways—and lots of enjoyment! It was a great day of fellowship and meeting new friends.

Many of the blanketeers enjoyed it so much that they worked on blankets at home. It was arranged to have drop-off locations at businesses throughout the county to make it easy for them to donate their projects.

At first, when the blanket count was low, the ladies gave their blankets to Holmes County residents only. But soon, after blanket days, Tami’s car would be filled with blankets, the back of Craig’s truck would be full, and the trailer behind his truck would be loaded with totes full of blankets. As Tami’s double storage unit filled, the chapter began actively looking for recipients. Tami would watch the obituary section of the newspaper for deaths that affected children. If the family was Amish, she would call her Amish friends and have them check their directory to see whether there were boys or girls, and their ages. They would tell her of other accidents or illnesses that involved children. Then there were the other organizations that Tami supplied with stacks of blankets: WIC, Help Me Grow, local fire departments, the ER at hospitals, and Holmes County’s Share-A-Christmas program. When the women heard of a need in another state, blankets were mailed off to them as well. And after the Loudonville chapter closed, the Holmes County chapter covered Ashland County as well as two additional counties.

Craig and Tami loved delivering the blankets. It was their little mission. When they heard of a need somewhere, Craig would load up the vehicle with blankets and they would drive to the location. Tami was the one who took them in. “No one ever turned us away,” said Tami, “I would see children who were fighting cancer or coping with losing a loved one, and I would tell Craig that my darkest day didn’t compare to what they were facing. Very rarely would I leave a house and not cry on the way home.”

One experience, in particular, stands out in Tami’s memory. She heard about a large family who had recently lost a child, so she and Craig headed out to their home with a stack of blankets. At first, the children showed no emotion, but after receiving their mother’s permission, they opened their packages. Tami watched as their faces were transformed with happiness. Each one took out their blanket and immediately wrapped up in it.

It’s the way nearly every child responded. According to Tami, 95 percent of the children would either rub their faces with the blanket or wrap up in it. They didn’t just look at them and then set them aside. Even children at a local children’s hospital, who were accustomed to receiving gifts, were always delighted to have a blanket. “It only makes sense,” she said. “We associate blankets with comfort. What do we do when we’re sick? We wrap up in a blanket. When we were born, it was the first thing we were swaddled in. We really can’t say or do anything to bring comfort, but a blanket does what words can’t.” Many mothers would send cards of appreciation saying that the blanketeers had no idea what their blankets have meant to their children. Tami would tell the group of volunteers, “If you could only see the smiles and the response, you would realize how special your blankets are!” Sometimes the world can seem like all doom and gloom, but Tami loved to remind her blanketeers that a lot of good was still happening.

Project Linus had a trickle affect. People donated unselfishly, women created blankets generously, and parents and acquaintances who saw the love and comfort the children received wanted to be a part of the giving. Some of these ladies were on fixed incomes, but because others donated, they could come to blanket days and be a part of the giving cycle.

This spring, however, brought some changes to Project Linus of Holmes County. Tami is looking for someone to assume her role with Project Linus. It was a painful decision, but she cheerfully realizes it’s the season of life she is in.

Several years after the Bucklews had started the Holmes County chapter, Jaunita was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Jaunita loved making blankets, and before she passed away, she asked Tami if she would please continue with the chapter after her death. Tami assured her she would, and she did for quite a few years. As time went on, Tami’s own parents needed more care. She was working as a full-time nurse, attending to her parents as well as her own family, and doing Project Linus. Craig kept reminding her that she couldn’t do everything. “But I promised your mother!” she would say. He would assure her that his mom would want her to care for her parents. Finally, Tami realized that she couldn’t do it all and decided to resign from her role with Project Linus.

At this point, no one has come forward to take Tami’s position. It’s difficult for Tami to see that unless someone picks up the baton, Project Linus will no longer be a part of Holmes and the surrounding counties. She longs to help someone get started. “Really,” she says, “In this community people want to help, and you aren’t in this alone.”

Have you been bitten by the blanket bug? There are Project Linus chapters in nearly every state, and likely there is one near you. If not, you may be just the one to launch a new chapter. The blankets really aren’t “just simple blankets,” you know. There’s so much more in them than meets the eye.

For more information, contact:

Project Linus  –  www.projectlinus.org

Tami Bucklew  •  (330) 231-1724  •  tamibucklew@gmail.com