Local “blanketeers” contribute piles of security to children’s nonprofit
With winter settling in, what could be more comforting than a warm blanket? For the thousands of babies and children in Western North Carolina served by Project Linus over the last 20 years, a blanket is not just a reassuring accessory: It can be something literal to hold on to during a period of trauma — and often for a long time afterward.
“I remember going into a hospital room many years ago,” says Project Linus’ regional coordinator, Ellen Knoefel. “The patient was a teenage girl with two broken legs. One cast was red, and one was green, so I brought her a red-and-green afghan.” Knoefel also recalls being in a fabric store to pick up donated material, and a mother overheard her conversation with a worker and stopped to tell them that her 17-year-old son, who was autistic, had received a Project Linus weighted blanket. “She said it never left his side. These beautiful memories happen all the time.”
Project Linus (named after the blanket-hugging Peanuts character) was born a quarter century ago, when a Denver-area knitter and quilter, Karen Loucks Rinedollar, read an article in the Christmas Eve issue of Parade magazine about a 3-year-old girl suffering from leukemia who clung to a specially made blanket for comfort during two years of intensive chemotherapy.
Loucks was inspired to provide blankets to young patients at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Children’s Cancer Center, and soon was fielding requests from other hospitals, homeless shelters, and rescue missions. Today, Project Linus — headquartered in Missouri — has chapters in all 50 states and has distributed more than 8 million blankets and quilts to children who, as the organization puts it, “are in need of a hug.”
The local chapter has been in operation since 1998. Knoefel, a Western North Carolina native, got involved 21 years ago, after moving back to Asheville from California and reading about Project Linus in a newspaper. “I started just going to the hospital once a week to deliver blankets to the pediatric unit,” she recalls, before becoming the Western North Carolina Chapter Coordinator in 2004. The chapter now serves 13 counties and will often donate blankets to neighboring counties when inventory permits. Blankets must be new; can be sewn, knitted, crocheted, or quilted; should be made in a nonsmoking environment; and must be completely washable.
They’re provided to patients ranging from newborns to 18-year-olds, are made at home by volunteers (or “blanketeers,” as Knoefel calls them), and are collected monthly for processing. “Every blanket gets logged in, as we have to keep track of every blanket in and out, and report this to our national office,” Knoefel explains. Project Linus labels are attached, along with a poem with the name of the volunteer who made the blanket. A final check follows for stray pins or any allergenic materials like pet hair, before the blankets are sorted by size and bagged for delivery.
“There are lots of steps in this labor of love,” Knoefel points out. There are also lots of people – she estimates 500 blanket-making volunteers for her chapter’s service area, who last year provided more than 3,500 blankets, many of which went to Mission Hospital’s many regional centers. “If we learn of an individual that needs a blanket ‘hug,’ then a blanket can go directly to that individual,” Knoefel says, citing incidents of house fires, car accidents, or families grieving the loss of a loved one.
Pat Crawford has been the Project Linus contact for Transylvania County for more than 20 years, collecting and distributing blankets for Brevard, Rosman, Cedar Mountain, Connestee Falls, and Lake Toxaway. “I have knitted and sewn things most of my life,” Crawford says. “I started [with Project Linus] when I read about it in the Hendersonville paper in 2001.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to indoor gatherings, Crawford used to organize an annual “Make A Blanket Week” in Transylvania County, a kind of blanket challenge event in which kits of fabric and batting were handed out to be made into blankets and returned within a week.
“I haven’t been able to do this for two years because of the pandemic,” Crawford says, “but hope I’ll be able to do so again next spring.”
Crawford remembers taking a blanket to a middle-school class for special-needs children. “The boy for whom the blanket was intended immediately lay on the floor and covered himself with it,” she says. “Fifteen minutes later, when I left, he was still cuddled with it. I love providing blankets, helping others to do so, and telling people about the organization and all that is done to comfort children.”
To learn more about Project Linus in Western North Carolina, visit projectlinusofwnc.org.