There’s nothing like being the recipient of a handmade gift. Knowing the hours a loved one spent making that cozy quilt or that fuzzy scarf makes it all the more special. Imagine the appreciation a stranger might have, especially in a crisis, receiving gift like this in the midst of lack and loss. The wonderful thing is that this pay-it-forward kind of crafting is happening all across town and these mini charitable enterprises are ones that you can contribute to with your time and talents. Here are a few stories showing how craftswomen across Billings are creating comfort for those in need.
KNITTING UP COMFORT
When Patty McLean started knitting in 2009, her husband John had just been diagnosed with cancer. She needed something to pass the time and keep her fingers and her mind busy while she waited for him to receive cancer treatments. John’s treatments lasted anywhere from 6-8 hours at a stretch. Along the way, she discovered a passion for knitting.
Patty’s husband passed away in 2012, and in the past three years, her knitting hobby has become even more precious to her. She now looks at it as something she can do to make a difference in the world. Patty is the coordinator of the Community Knitting Group at Wild Purls, a Billings yarn store, located on 24th Street West. The community group at Wild Purls knits and crochets items for numerous charities across the community. This fall, they spent time knitting hats and mittens for needy children in neighborhood schools.
The women in the group share a passion not only for fiber crafts but also for making the world a little bit brighter by having hearts for great causes.
“It can get pretty raucous. We talk about a lot of stuff,” Patty says. “It’s just good women’s fellowship.”
Although the group knits for a wide range of non-profit organizations throughout the community, possibly one of the most intimate projects they’ve taken on is the making of what they call “pea pods.” A pea pod is a tiny knit wrap and cap that are worn by super preemie, stillborn babies. They’re made and donated to local hospitals in pairs. One set is worn by the baby in the hospital, and the second, identical set is sent home in a keepsake box with other mementos of the birth.
“Some of these babies will fit in the palm of your hand,” Patty says. “Communicating that to the group is hard. Preemie outfits just don’t fit. It’s hard to wrap your head around really how small they are.”
Feedback from nurses who assist with the delivery of the tiny stillborn babies say the families treasure the tiny garments.
Knitting the pea pods and knowing the garment you’re making will be worn by a stillborn baby can be difficult, Patty says, but many women who are devoted to the task see it as an opportunity to give thanks for their own healthy, full-term pregnancies.
All the women in the group buy their own yarn to use for the projects they donate, and many of the women in the group have been collecting yarn for so long that they have a good stash to pick from. Patty can’t help herself when she finds a nice, natural fiber skein on sale. She buys it because she knows she’ll eventually use it for something.
“I may not have a project in mind when I buy it, but eventually it gets used,” Patty says.
The Wild Purls community knitting group meets every Wednesday from 1-3 p.m. at the store at 1206 24Th Street West. Knitters and crocheters of all skill levels are welcome. To learn more, contact the store at 406-245-2224.
There’s a chance that a Syrian refugee somewhere in Europe is wrapped in a blanket that was made by Eleanor Anderson and her dedicated crew of quilters at Atonement Lutheran Church. The women – there are about 10 of them – get together every Tuesday to make quilts for Lutheran World Relief, which distributes the quilts worldwide to victims of disasters and other traumatic events.
Last year, the ladies stitched more than 1,300 quilts. Many of them went to Lutheran World relief, a national organization that distributes quilts for groups like the one at Atonement Lutheran Church. However, hundreds of blankets also stayed in the Billings community. They were distributed to a wide variety of social service agencies and non-profit groups, including Family Service, the Billings Food Bank, the HUB, and Tumbleweed as well as many others.
Eleanor has been quilting for Lutheran World Relief since she retired 20 years ago. That year, the group, smaller then than now, made 16 blankets. More women joined the group, they streamlined their work and they are now easily completing 25 or more quilts a week.
Most of the women work on the quilt tops at home and work as a group to finish them at the church. All of the fabric they use is donated. The gals in the group visit garage sales and buy or ask for fabric. They also dip into their fabric stashes at home and others in the church buy and bring them fabric.
“We are just so blessed with so much fabric,” Eleanor says. “We couldn’t do it without so many people donating.”
The quilts are nothing fancy, she adds. They’re simple block squares and tied. Every one is a little different and those that turn out especially well are donated to organizations for their raffles or sold at the church bazaar to raise money for the project.
“The Lord just blesses us every day with the stuff we need to keep this project going,” Eleanor will tell you.
When they have time, the women sew dog beds for local animal shelters and stuff them with fabric scraps. Eleanor says it’s a way to use the leftover material so nothing goes to waste.
The ladies at Atonement Lutheran Church are always accepting donations of fabric, batting, and cash. To help out, drop donations at the church, located at 1290 Sierra Granda in the Heights. The group is also open to women who are not in the congregation. Just drop by any Tuesday from 1-5 p.m.
Jean Eakin remembers a house fire several years ago that destroyed a family home. News coverage showed the family standing outside their smoldering home. It was January, Jean remembers, and in the photo, a neighbor had approached the family’s teenage daughter and threw a fleece blanket over her shoulders to keep her warm. Jean was moved by the image. She knew the family from church, and that simple act of kindness sparked an idea.
“I thought, we can do this. We have the resources and expertise to make fleece blankets,” Jean says.
The blankets are simple: two layers of fleece laid flat and tied around the edges. The prep takes some time to cut the fleece and tie them, but with a group it’s rather easy.
Soon after, Jean paid a visit to the Council of Catholic Women at St. Pius X Church, where she fellowships, and presented her idea. They took a liking to it, and decided to get together to make a batch of blankets for the fire department for victims of house fires, or other traumatic events. The first year they managed to make 30 blankets, but since then it has taken off.
That was six years ago. The group is bigger now and they get together for one day once a year in November to make the blankets. Last year the group made 60 blankets. The fleece is donated by members of the church who buy it throughout the year.
“It fills up my heart,” Jean says. “It really does. It fills my heart with gratitude.”
The blankets are donated to both the Billings Fire Department and the Billings Police Department. They’re hoping to expand to include donations to Laurel’s emergency responders as well, Jean says.
Police officers carry the blankets in the trunks of their patrol cars and give them away to anyone who needs them, especially to comfort children and victims of accidents who are in shock.
Billings Fire Department Chief Paul Dextras says the blankets are a godsend for families who are involved in house fires.
“I fully believe that these blankets end up being something that families treasure,” Dextras says. “They just know that somebody made them out of the kindness of their heart and that they care about them.”
Just as the fire department and police department are thankful, so is Jean, who sees her work as a partnership with the whole congregation.
“The whole community of St. Pius X has done this,” she says.
The group is always accepting donations of new fleece, which can be dropped off at the church office at 717 18th Street West in Billings. New volunteers are always welcome and don’t have to be members of the church to help on the day the blankets are made, which is usually mid-November. For more information, contact Jean at 406-690-8606.
HOPE KNIT: Cancer patients at Billings Clinic are welcome to choose a handmade hat from a hat tree in the Cancer Center. The “cancer caps” are the handiwork of a dedicated group of stitchers who meet once a week at the hospital. More discretely, they also make breast prosthesis for mastectomy patients. Hope Knit meets every Monday afternoon from 1-3 p.m. in the Billings Clinic Commons. Knitters and crocheters of all skill levels are welcome.
MENDING MINISTRY: A dedicated group of women meets every other month at St. John’s Lutheran Ministries to help with mending. They do patching and simple alterations for residents in the nursing home, assisted living and independent living facilities. At the core are Hazel Haberlock, Lois Bestrom and Cleo Koefelda, but they are always looking for help. To join the effort, contact Cleo at 406-628-5075.
THE LINUS PROJECT: This national organization with a chapter in Billings, provides blankets for children, infant to 18 years old. The group meets at 12:30 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of the month at Spring Blossom Quilt N Sew, 1831 Main Street in the Heights. Blankets that volunteers make are distributed at various agencies, including the pediatric center at Billings Clinic. New members are always welcome and donations are always appreciated, says Terri Malucci, the coordinator. For more information, contact Terri at 406-855-7999. The national Linus Project website at www.projectlinus.org is also a good resource.
BLANKET A FOSTER CHILD WITH LOVE: Want to make a difference but are unable to join a group? Consider making quilted or fleece blankets for children in foster care. “When kids come in oftentimes they don’t have anything but the clothes on their backs,” says Joan McLuskie, a licensing worker for Child and Family Services. Child and Family Services staff and foster families can usually outfit foster children with new clothes (which can also be donated) but the comfort of a blanket is something special and can make the transition to a new home less stressful. Since children of all ages enter foster care, a variety of blankets are needed. They can be quilted, crocheted, knitted, or tied. Donations can be dropped off at the Child and Family Services office at 2525 4th Ave. North #309. For more information, contact Joan or one of the other licensing workers at 406-657-3120.