Comforting children with blankets at their time of need
By Sonia Duggan
Cold rain, freezing temperatures, extreme heat, high winds. Not much will keep volunteers from showing up at the old Nevada gymnasium on Highway 6 every Wednesday throughout the year.
The dirt parking lot is full on “work days” with vehicles from all over the Metroplex. Women, and some men, arrive alone or in groups, carrying project bags and often a dish to share with everyone for lunch.
The building becomes a hubbub of activity throughout the day as people come and go from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. volunteering their time and skills for a special cause that will impact the lives of children in counties throughout Northeast Texas.
The cause is Project Linus, a national nonprofit whose mission is to “Provide love, a sense of security, warmth, and comfort to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need through the gifts of new, handmade blankets.”
Blankets are made by blanketeers – dedicated individuals who volunteer to assist in a multitude of ways to create washable blankets that are donated each month to hospitals in Rockwall, Plano, McKinney and Frisco; Collin and Rockwall County Sheriff’s Departments, Lavon Police Department, CASA of Collin County, City House and Samaritan Inn.
“I have on many occasions witnessed firsthand the calming effect a Project Linus blanket has had on children that were crime victims or survivors of terrible car crashes,” Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner said.
Aside from hospitals and first responders, additional charities Camp Dragonfly, Snowball Express, and Project Sanctuary benefit from the generosity of the group.
Last month, Rockwell resident Tom Richmond took 40 blankets for Project Sanctuary, a camp that military families attend so they can heal as they transition after service or deployment. Richmond, a Project Sanctuary volunteer, told the Project Linus group that the blankets are distributed to kids at “Heroes Night Out,” a special night where the children enjoy a pizza and pajama party while parents attend a special dinner.
Every year, Project Linus blankets are delivered to Camp Dragonfly, sponsored by the Hope Center of Texoma. The semi-annual retreat is a bereavement camp for children ages 8-12 who have lost a loved one. All blankets prepared for campers are in bright colors and each is adorned with a special embroidered dragonfly.
The group also contributes blankets each year to Snowball Express, an annual 4-day event for post 9/11 children of fallen soldiers held at Disney World.
Leader of the pack
Arriving at the gym each Wednesday at 7 a.m. to prepare coffee and open the doors for the volunteers is Lavon resident Regina Forthman, coordinator for the Rockwall, Grayson and Collin County Chapters of Project Linus.
She is a kind and patient taskmaster who stays busy being a gracious hostess, leader, teacher, and whatever else she needs to be for the Wednesday group. The rest of the week she organizes and manages requests for quilt kits, deliveries of blankets as well as a inquires about Project Linus.
Forthman lovingly jokes that she “runs a sweatshop” in the old gym but it’s evident that the blanketeers love the comradery and the cause otherwise they would not show up every week.
She has been the Project Linus coordinator for three years, but much like her predecessors, her love of quilting and history with the nonprofit goes back a long way.
In 1987, Forthman was the Community Education Director for Community ISD. As part of her job she inherited a group of four elderly quilters called the Community Quilters.
“After a couple of years, the state dropped the funding,” she said. “I became the superintendent’s secretary, but I had fallen in love with the quilters, so we kept the program going even after I retired.”
Forthman retired in 2005 at 58 and continued managing quilters on the campus of the Leland Edge Middle School.
Three years later, Forthman donated her first quilt to Project Linus.
“By January 2009, a friend, Minnie Stanley, asked if she could make one too,” she said. “And it grew from there.”
Forthman said she introduced the quilters to Project Linus after one of the ladies passed away and the remaining senior citizens became too feeble to handle a standard size quilt.
“We just rolled from one to the other – with senior citizens doing projects – into Project Linus,” she said.
Up until 2015, Forthman’s group consisted of 10-15 women who met in a portable building at the school. The group made about 200 blankets per month for the nonprofit.
Four years ago, Community Quilters/Project Linus moved to its current location when the school district reclaimed its space. Despite the circa 1939 facility, the group has grown partly due to its proximity to Hwy 78. Around 50 members show up each week, especially, says Forthman, if she prepares a big meal for lunch.
In the open gym area, rows of tables and chairs are set up. Volunteers gather in groups to sew labels and tie poems on each blanket, crochet, work on fleece tie blankets, cut fabric, bag blankets and do any other assorted tasks Forthman has for them.
In a smaller room, there are multiple sewing machines and a temperamental handmade long arm quilter that only Nevada resident Ann Hollingshead seems to understand. Fabrics, yarns and thread are stacked in brown bins lining the wall. There is a table in the corner for cutting fleece where husband and wife team, Joe and Elaine Henry of McKinney, stand and cut all day, and roll holes in the fleece edges so it can be crocheted.
“Joe bags the blankets, helps Elaine cut fleece, and is a long arm quilter,” Forthman said. “He quilts for us at home. Elaine embroiders fleece at home for us.”
Blanketeers travel from multiple counties and do all types of “jobs” to help out.
Marlene Schweickhardt of Prosper helps label and deliver blankets and does long arm quilting. Rockwall resident Gwen Sunderson works at a cutting table preparing fabric and instructions for quilt kits to give away at quilt shows, shops and retreats. Patti Bell of Rockwall crochets and delivers blankets to Lake Pointe Baylor Scott & White.
For many, it’s an opportunity for fellowship and often fills a void for those who are widowed or living alone. Kye Miller, a local, is the jokester and handyman of the group. He keeps the conversation lively while tying scrap fleece pieces for dog toys. “He does anything I ask with a smile,” Regina said.
Many of the volunteers share threads of connection through a friend, relative or other crafting groups.
Sunderson has a friend, Kristine Stebbins, that she knits and quilts with in other groups. Stebbins encouraged her Wednesday Weavers group in Farmersville to make six custom woven 100 percent cotton blankets to donate to Project Linus in early December.
The Farmersville Quilt Guild has four members that attend the weekly group, and some like Debi “JR” Paustian, have been donating blankets to the group for years before she started attending weekly meetings.
Forthman keeps a Project Linus blanket/quilt record of each member. The groups oldest member, June Graham, has made 3,065 blankets as of February 16. The 86-year-old has been making blankets for 10 years with Forthman.
Graham routinely stays for three hours on Wednesdays then goes home in Nevada to be with her husband who is 90. She works on blankets while she watches game shows for about two hours per day.
“I used to make one per day or six per week,” she said. “I’ve got to stay busy. It keeps me out of trouble.”
To date, over 7,784,696 blankets have been donated to children in need.
Blankets can be woven, crocheted, knitted, quilted, sewn or hand-tied, or made from finished edge fleece. They must be made fragrance and smoke free with no pet hair or dander.
The blankets are unique in patterns that will appeal to any child and often some have custom embroidery.
The group makes three standard sizes of blankets: small (36”x36” and 36”x45”), medium (45”X60”) and large (54”x63”). Cuddles, even smaller blankets, are made exclusively for Children’s Hospital in Plano and are given to children undergoing scans or MRIs to comfort them.
Volunteers also make blankets in softer, baby colors for NICU babies.
No matter your experience or age, there are ways you can help to prepare blankets for delivery.
The chapter makes and distributes about 500 blankets per month, but it doesn’t all happen on Wednesdays.
“All the ladies that come in here always go in and load their bag and take home 4 or 5 for the week,” Forthman said. “Some of them just trade, get new work and go home, while others will sit and crochet together for the day.”
On the third Saturday of every month, Forthman opens the doors from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for anyone who can’t make it during the week.
Finished blankets are bagged 10 at a time labeled for boys or girls and stacked in a big pile along the gymnasium wall. Distributions vary each week but often 100 – 200 blankets will be delivered or picked up for multiple recipients.
Once a quarter, Sheriff Skinner and staff members visit for lunch. Blanketeers often sit misty-eyed, says Forthman, as he relays stories of how the department uses the blankets.
“My deputies and I carry Project Linus blankets in our vehicles at all times and recognize their value in helping those who have suffered a traumatic event,” Sheriff Skinner said. “One only need to wrap up a suffering child in a Project Linus blanket, while on the side of a rain wrapped stretch of road in the middle of the night, to know and appreciate the work these ladies do.”