`Blanketeers' sew away to help others

Afghans and blankets handmade in Harford go to Project Linus


Almost every evening after dinner, Jean Matson settles into a recliner, pulls yarn and a needle out of her sewing basket and crochets until bedtime.

The 71-year-old Forest Hill resident learned the craft as a child and spent years making blankets and afghans for family and friends. Eventually, Matson ran out of people to give them to, so she began making items for her home. Soon the house was awash in rugs, throws and afghans.

"I literally had pieces all over the house," Matson said. "I couldn't put more in here if I wanted to."

That led Matson to seek new recipients for her work. Her quest ended at Project Linus, a national nonprofit organization that provides handmade blankets and afghans to seriously ill children.

In Maryland, there are 10 chapters, including one in Bel Air that works primarily with institutions throughout Harford County.

"I enjoy doing things to help people in my own community," Matson said. "When I heard about this program I knew it was exactly what I was looking for."

Many members of the local group gather for blanket-making parties in members' homes.

Sandy Smith, coordinator of the Bel Air chapter, hosts daylong blanket-making sessions - called "Make a Blanket, Make a Difference" - where all 200 members are invited to bring family and friends to make blankets. The group was scheduled to hold a session yesterday in Hickory to make blankets for victims of recent hurricanes.

The organization was founded in 1995 by a Colorado woman who had read a newspaper story about how a security blanket helped a 3-year-old girl get through chemotherapy at a Denver cancer center.

"This whole thing started when I went to a reporter at my hometown paper and asked him to write something to get blankets for the center," said Karen Loucks Rinedollar, founder of Project Linus. "From there, kaboom! It just blew up from there."

The organization was named for the Peanuts comic strip character.

Rinedollar endeavored to collect 100 blankets in six months, a goal that was achieved in a few weeks. She received thousands of telephone calls from all over the country and encouraged others to start chapters. A decade later, there are 357 chapters, and 1,347,961 blankets had been donated as of June.

The program was just what Matson was seeking. She decided to join the "blanketeers" of the Bel Air branch. Five years later, her efforts have culminated in the completion of 182 blankets for the cause, and she's still crocheting.

The Harford group donates more than 2,500 blankets each year to causes and institutions throughout the county, said Smith, a Parkville resident who took over as head of the Harford chapter in 2001.

Harford recipients include Upper Chesapeake Medical Center pediatrics, Birthright, WIC of Aberdeen, several pregnancy centers and the sheriff's department, which provides blankets for children who are victims of domestic violence.

Not only are the children comforted by receiving the blankets, often their parents are, too, said Pat Stranger, clinical coordinator at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.

"We give the blankets out to children who will be here for a long period of time," Stranger said. "It makes the children feel good that someone cares and helps the parents know that they are not alone."

Smith said most of the people who make blankets for Project Linus do so because of the rewarding feeling they get from giving a boost to a sick child.

"People who make the blankets are aged 5 to 97, which is one of the reasons it's so successful," Smith said. "Anyone can do it."

However, Rinedollar said the more senior blanketeers are the heart of Project Linus.

"We have some active seniors who work and travel, and we have some who are in retirement homes who have nothing to look forward to," she said. "Project Linus fills that void and makes them feel they're making a difference."

That was the case for Frances Malczewski.

Making blankets for Project Linus kept the Bel Air resident going, said her daughter, Barbara Johann. About a decade ago, Malczewski started using a wheelchair and making blankets helped her pass the time and feel as though she was making an important contribution, Johann said.

"My mom started making blankets when she was 87 years old and kept going until she turned 97 and her fingers quit working and she forgot how to do it," said Johann, 72, of Bel Air. "It helped fill her days with something when she couldn't do much else. She and I worked on blankets together until she was placed in a nursing home."

Each chapter operates differently, but the premise is that blankets must be new, handmade and washable. Once the blanket is completed, a tag designed by Rinedollar is sewn on to identify it as a Project Linus item. Then a removable tag with a tiny Linus character on it is attached with yarn that identifies the maker's name and address.

Often the children who receive the blankets show appreciation with a handwritten note or photos to the blanket maker. Even though the organization focuses on children, the chapters often send blankets for disaster relief, such as with the Sept. 11 attacks or hurricane victims.

Matson compiled a scrapbook with photographs of every blanket she's made. When she receives notes or photos, she adds them to her book. The most memorable note came from a man injured during the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

"This serviceman was burned on his hands and arms and he received one of my blankets," Matson said. "He hung on to the blanket while he was in the hospital, and then when he went home his 18-month-old son took it over.

"He sent me the most beautiful letter telling me his story and thanking me for the blanket. This is how I know that the blankets mean something to the people that receive them. And that's all I need to keep making them."

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