In honor of her 60th birthday, Pamela Riester decided to go big and make 60 homemade blankets for children going through hard times – from surgery, to cancer, to family troubles.
Word spread. Friends, colleagues and even her niece’s Michigan Girl Scout troop pitched in to help. By her birthday weekend, she had 126 blankets to give to the local chapter of Project Linus.
“It was better than I thought it could be … It was a fun way for me to reconnect,” she said. “I wanted to have a milestone birthday that helped other people, which is, I think, why I’m a nurse.”
Riester, a nurse at Women’s and Children’s Hospital who works in the Buffalo Public Schools, got the idea because of her Jan. 24 birthday. It is always near the last Saturday of that month, the annual gathering of an association of local nurse practitioners who get together at the East Amherst Swormville Fire Department to collect and make blankets for a Project Linus donation.
“It’s kind of like an old-fashioned quilting bee,” she said.
This year Riester made 61 blankets with help from friends from as far away as Ireland and Arizona who sent her money, fabric and even blankets. Her Michigan niece surprised her by persuading her Girl Scout troop to adopt the project. The girls collected bottles and used the deposit money to buy fleece fabric and proudly assembled 56 blankets.
“It was a good community project to show kids that other kids need things and we can help them,” said Riester.
Project Linus was started in 1995 after a story appeared in Parade Magazine about a 3-year-old little girl fighting leukemia and taking a blanket with her for chemotherapy treatments. The blanket-distributing nonprofit, with 250 chapters nationwide, took off after a Colorado woman read the story and began making blankets for Denver’s Rocky Mountain Children’s Cancer Center. The project was named after the blanket-toting character from the Peanuts comic strip.
Now every year the Erie and Niagara county chapter of Project Linus distributes about 3,000 blankets to 26 sites – from hospitals to domestic violence shelters. “We are always delivering blankets,” said Christine Lewandowski, the local coordinator.
Some of the most poignant gifts are the small 12-by-12-inch blankets for preemie babies who often don’t survive, she said.
For a child, and parent, going through something traumatic, a specially made blanket can be a great solace “to let everybody know that there is someone out there that cares about them,” Lewandowski said.
“It helps them to cope,” she said.
Store-bought blankets aren’t accepted because it is the handmade quality that gives Project Linus blankets such power. “It’s a little bit more meaningful when you give from your heart,” she said.
Riester’s donation was a welcome boost.
“I could not believe what she accomplished. I was like, ‘What are you doing lady?’ ” said Lewandowski. “It just makes a difference sometimes. If you can help somebody when you have the opportunity to, it benefits the entire community.”
When Riester worked to sew her blanket donation this past summer, her project took another satisfying turn. It was a chance to reflect on her late mother, who urged thrift. For Project Linus, Riester used leftover material she’d bought to make things for her children who are now grown.
“My mom taught me how to sew, and she was probably smiling down from heaven,” Riester said, “because she was a product of the Depression … She taught me not to waste. I thought she’d be happy that I was using remnants.”