As a kid I secretly identified with Linus Van Pelt, Charlie Brown’s best friend, who carried his blue security blanket everywhere he went. My own blanket was not blue, but yellow, the smooth satin edging long gone. It accompanied me on many a camping trip or family vacation. How comforting it was to wrap myself in it every night like a hug.
Helen Smith understands the importance of blankets for children. The day she noticed a woman’s quilt at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Providence, where she has been a member for 60 years, she found her calling – and a friend in Martha Sholes.
The woman with the quilt introduced her to Martha, who in turn introduced her to Project Linus, a nonprofit organization that provides handmade blankets for children, from infants to teenagers, “who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need.”
Project Linus’s founder, Karen Loucks Baker, was inspired to provide handmade blankets to the children of Denver’s Rocky Mountain Children’s Cancer Center. Today the organization’s mission is “to provide love, a sense of security, warmth and comfort” with every handmade blanket.
Rarely without her crochet or knitting needle in hand, Helen has made 1,522 blankets since 2007. She set aside her 1,000th blanket, a trophy if you will, before eventually donating it.
Growing up in foster homes, Helen remembers learning how to hook a rug from a kindly grandmotherly woman she lived with.
“I loved her; she was so sweet.” She had a little attic room where Helen enjoyed learning her new craft. Fondly, she described it: “I can remember where the window in the room was. I can picture it completely.”
At age 16 she was taken in by her aunt and uncle, where her cousin Peggy taught her to knit while listening to radio shows. It was there she knitted her very first piece, a baby sweater.
Years later, when she worked in the jewelry industry, her coworkers bought her blankets. She has taught a couple of people, which she admits is difficult, although she easily demonstrates a stitch. She wants to spread the word about the blankets by sharing patterns, especially the “ripple” pattern. “It’s easy,” she says convincingly.
Helen now produces 2½ crocheted blankets a week, often while watching a movie on TV. The more exciting the movie, the faster she crochets – “and I love movies!” she says. There are 29 completed blankets stockpiled in her spare room, all created with the additional time on her hands during the coronavirus shutdowns. The various drop-off centers around town have put donations on hold for the time being, but Project Linus encourages its blanket volunteers, or “blanketeers,” to continue crocheting and knitting, for there is still a need.
Helen and her late husband, Donald, were frequent customers at JoAnn Fabrics. Although Linus’s blanket is blue, Helen is very selective in her choice of colors. “Camouflage color for boys, purple for girls, and a lot of red white and blue; many flags contain these colors,” she explains. “Of course, the color depends on my mood, or a sale.”
As Donald helped her choose the yarn, he’d always ask, “Are you sure you’ve got enough?” That was invitation enough to succumb to the temptation to buy more. “That yarn needs to be perfect,” she says, knowing its final destination is in a child’s arms in the hospital.
Hospital volunteers place the donated blankets on a gurney, which is wheeled down the hall, where children come out of their rooms and may choose their blanket. For Helen, this scene Martha describes would be extremely emotional. However, she finds comfort in imagining a young boy choosing one of her camouflage color blankets and saying, “Look! I made a tent!”
Helen’s college age granddaughter was so enamored with her grandmother’s blankets that she took orders from her male classmates for custom blankets.
Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops earning badges, students requiring community service hours, and church groups have taken on the blanket project. It brings Helen satisfaction knowing children are involved making blankets for other children.
“College kids, elementary school kids – they love it!” Martha agrees. The finished products are donated to Hasbro Children’s Hospital, South County Hospital, Ronald McDonald House, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and other charitable organizations.
“I do it from here, with my heart,” Helen emphasizes. “I put a lot of prayers into my crocheting.”
Her Project Linus counterpart, and dear friend, Martha, hand-stitches a label onto each blanket: “Project Linus – made with love.”
Martha is the coordinator for the Rhode Island chapter of Project Linus, encompassing the entire state. She remembers reading in 1995 about Loucke Baker, who described the tremendous impact her handmade blankets had upon the children whom she visited at the Denver hospital.
“You can make a blanket at home, and enjoy doing it.” When store-bought blankets are donated, they are warmly received, as Martha adds a crochet border or an appliqué for a signature touch.
Martha and her husband, Richard, pick up approximately 40 to 50 blankets at 10 drop-off centers throughout the state on designated “Blanket Days.” Blaine Sewing Machine Center in Cranston has been a popular drop-off site for 18 years. For now, she reminds interested “blanketeers” to hold their blankets at home, until the sites reopen, “or we will be bombarded!”
Sewing on the Linus labels enables Martha to provide an accurate count to the national headquarters in Belton, Missouri. But each little label is really like a love letter to an unknown child, waiting for a hug.
Visit ProjectLinus.org for information on how to share your time, talent or treasure.