lc-blankets350x467The library/media room at Alta Vista elementary school is buzzing with activity as class after class come to participate in their school’s service project, Alta Vista Cares Sew Much, spearheaded by their progressive principal, Dr. Barbara Shirley. The individual tables, seating 4 students at each, are piled with large squares of fleece – warm, cuddly, and colorful – which many hands have cut and are now tying together to make throws. One hundred to be exact! Throws that will soon be on their way to St. Pete’s All Children’s Hospital, where they will make the day brighter and warmer for young cancer patients.

The idea for the project was inspired by one of Alta’s Vista’s students, a fifth grader named James, who had been taught to sew by his grandmother, and together had made pillow cases for cancer patients at this same hospital.

Although the blanket project is voluntary, there is not a single student that chooses to opt out. Ms. Denegris’ third grade class is the next to enter. She tells her students, “It’s an honor to help children who are not as lucky as you are. But feel free to sit over there (pointing to a large empty table off to the side) and work on something else if you want to.” Not one student takes her up on that offer, choosing instead to contribute what they can to the project.

lc-sew-blanket400x300The students busily start tying the top and bottom pieces of felt together to create a thicker blanket. One young girl, who has already tied a few, patiently shows some of her friends how to make the knots.

One boy, Thorin says, “It feels good to help people who have been sick or hurt.”

Kaliyah, who is also ten, chimes in. “I was in the hospital four times,” she says. “They will be happy because people care and are trying to help them. I feel happy and confident because I can help.”

Another third grader, Emanuel, says “Making the blankets is all about teamwork.”

Martin is proud of his school saying, “Alta Vista really cares about Children’s Hospital and the kids who have cancer or need surgery.”

The conversation continues as each student shares what working on this project means to them.

Kaitlyn is no novice at making blankets to make others feel good. “My little sister is five and she was so sick, she had to be home-schooled. Kaitlyn made a blanket for her sister, and says, “It feels good to be making a blanket for someone else. Another time I had a friend who was sick and I made a blanket for her. She told me, ‘Thank you. You’re a nice friend.’”

Not only did the students from kindergarten to 5th grade help to make the blankets, but they raised some of the money, bringing in their pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, to pay for the material. Kaitlyn was so happy to help and proud of the fact that, “I made money mowing people’s lawns, baby sitting, and walking the dogs. I earned $60 and a friend gave me another $20. I gave it to the school. I used some of the fleece for my sister’s blanket.”

Madeleine, who is 8, said that when she heard about the blanket program she took her $20 allowance money and said, “I don’t need any toys or anything,” as she made her contribution to the school.

Another classmate, Alexander, sitting nearby, said “This is helpful to do because sick people don’t have these things.” When asked what their reaction might be to getting a blanket, Ashiley volunteered, “The person who receives it will feel proud and thankful and say, ‘How did they do this?’ My mom was in the hospital. I was really sad.”

Without a doubt, everyone who contributed their hands, hearts, or money agreed,

“It feels good to help people who are sick.”

One little girl was overheard saying, “I hope I did it right. I did it the best I could. I did it with love.”

After these mountains of blankets were completed, they were put into boxes, which had been decorated by the students. Then fifty students were selected by lottery to deliver the blankets to the hospital, an hour away.

Ms. Nancy Cortez-Knapp, who is the volunteer coordinator at AltaVista, was one of the five chaperones on the bus and said, “The kids couldn’t sleep the night before because they were so excited. One second grader, Michelle, had a coin purse filled with coins to spend as she wanted. She said, “I want to give it to the school for the blankets.”

The highlight for Ms. Cortez-Knapp was “the unity and bond created with all of the children, volunteers and faculty. Everyone at every level from five to ninety was able to participate. It was a great experience. I knew we accomplished what we wanted to do.”

Dr. Shirley is proud of the students at Alta Vista. She said, “While our children come from impoverished diverse backgrounds where 94% of the students are on the free and reduced lunch program, they have learned that there are other children who have much greater needs than themselves. They have gained confidence, worked together towards a common goal and have learned the importance of giving to others.”