Knitter blankets the world with her charity

Woman's agile hands create gifts for those in need of comfort

January 02, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Christine Burns of Aberdeen is a grandmotherly type who has a way with a crochet hook and knitting needles. And what she does with them makes a little magic for others.

The 72-year-old widow with salt-and-pepper hair and cheery cheeks creates blankets and booties for veterans, children and families, bringing them a little warmth and comfort in a time of need.

She's a powerhouse volunteer: She's a "blanketeer" for Project Linus, a national organization that delivers homemade blankets to children; she makes slippers for veterans and the homeless; and she crafts baby sets for the Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society. Last year she devoted about 3,600 hours to helping others.

So when December rolled around, she decided to take a little time off - sort of.

Though she wasn't making items to donate, Burns wasn't without her knitting needles or crochet hook. And in her travels to see family over the holidays, she took at least a dozen skeins of yarn along. She has, no doubt, stayed busy.

For Burns, who has been working the needles since she learned knitting in a third-grade German classroom, such needlework is threaded intricately through her daily life. "It gives me something to do with my hands," she said.

It's therapeutic, in more than one way, she said. "I have arthritis very badly," she said, rubbing her hands. In the morning, she can barely hold a coffee cup; crocheting or knitting helps loosen her joints.

So the hook and needles are her constant companions, along with Charlie and Chloe, the family cat and dog, respectively, in the townhouse she shares with one of her six children.

The crafting skills she brought with her when she moved to the United States as an American soldier's bride in 1948 have become second nature. She works on pieces almost offhandedly while she reads, watches television, listens to the radio or looks out the picture window in her bedroom. She can make a blanket in about three days.

Working from imagination

Burns sticks to a handful of designs from her imagination rather than relying on a pattern book. She's like a musician who plays by ear - reading patterns is just too complicated and time-consuming. The work flows from her fingers in delicate cables, scalloped edges and lacy designs.

Burns also crafts sweaters, bedspreads and baby sets for friends and family. Some folks pay her, but she charges a pittance. A bonnet, sweater and booties for a newborn cost $6.50 - enough, she said, to pay for a little more yarn.

Her worktable is crowded with notes, measurements and a little black notebook that dates to 1993, detailing each item she has made. Frequently, she said, people return looking for an item just like one she made for them years before. The notebook helps jog her memory.

When she talks about the extraordinary time she puts into volunteering, Burns describes her work modestly.

"My little contribution, I hope it helps somebody," she said, with a hint of a German accent.

Burns learned about Project Linus at Aberdeen Senior Center. She thought making and donating blankets seemed like a good use of her yarn and her time.

"I had so much yarn in the basement, I didn't know what to do with it," she recalled, laughing. When a knitter in the community dies, she said, the family often gathers up the unused yarn and brings it to her. "'Take it to Christine; she'll make use of it,'" she quipped.

Project Linus

Project Linus, based in Bloomington, Ill., was started in 1995. By the end of last year, the group had delivered nearly 400,000 blankets to children around the world, said national President Carol Babbitt. Contributors have started 300 chapters in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Nine are in Maryland. In Harford County, 160 women donate time and blankets to the project.

Project Linus chapters usually direct contributions to local destinations - to hospitals, shelters and other social service agencies - but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and their aftermath broadened the organization's focus last year. Since September, Project Linus has sent about 10,600 blankets to families of the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. It also has collected about 5,000 blankets to send to children in Afghanistan.

Sandy Smith coordinates the Harford volunteers, though many of them, including Burns, she has never met. Volunteers drop off blankets at a church in Bel Air, where Smith picks them up for distribution. She packed nine boxes of blankets to send to families of New York firefighters, along with two or three dozen blankets for families of victims of the attack at the Pentagon.

"It's just a little measure of comfort," Smith said. "I pray for whoever's getting my blankets."

Burns, who grew up in Germany during World War II and vividly remembers the horrors of wartime, said she tries not to imagine the children who need her blankets. "I try not to dwell on it too much. I take it too seriously; I have seen too many things," she said quietly.

Habit for a nondriver

The underpinning of Burns' passion for needlework might have come from a job she shared for many years with her second husband. The pair delivered interoffice mail for C&P Telephone Co., driving a route five days a week that stretched from Elkton in Cecil County to Hunt Valley in Baltimore County.

Burns doesn't drive, so for the 12 years they had the route, she rode along on the 135-mile round trip as navigator and knitter. It became a habit.

One snowy day in 1983, after her husband was involved in a serious auto accident on the Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna River, Burns rushed from the house with troopers - with nary a needle and no yarn. It was a fretful time that taught her a lesson.

"I'm never going to leave the house," she said, smiling, "unless I have something to do with my hands."

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