By Emma Buchanan
A Leslieville quilting club might never meet children at Scarborough Grace Hospital, but they are connected to each other and a nationwide charity in a long-lasting way
A child won’t let go of the blanket that came home from the hospital with them — unwilling to part with it even for the few minutes their mom needs to wash it. They will probably never know everyone that brought the blanket to them, from the quilting club that stitched every painstaking detail to the nurse who fetched it for them. Nor are they likely to know the mileage the blanket collected before it got to them, or the care and time that went into its packaging. As they are cuddling the blanket, the child knows only comfort.
“They have received a little special something from somebody who really cared,” says Diana Delic, who has heard stories like this again and again as York region coordinator of Project Linus, a charity named after the “blanket-toting character from the Peanuts comic strip” that provides blankets made by volunteers to children – from premature babies to teens – in hospitals across Canada.
In fact, there are a lot of “somebodies” behind the 21-year-old project and the stories of gratitude Delic hears.
On a typical Tuesday evening, the Jones Library Quilters gather to do their part in a space carved out in a small, open-concept library at the corner of Jones and Gerrard avenues.
Their workspace is bordered by bookshelves, and people occasionally wander through to look at the books that surround the group. The colours of the quilts punctuate the muted tones of the 60-year-old library’s walls in a branch built especially for children. There’s a hum of fluorescent lights overhead. It’s quiet, but it’s not silent.
On this particular night, six women sit around an array of brightly-coloured fabric squares laid out across the folding table. They chat while they work and there’s a rhythm to their motions – stitch, flip, repeat. Chat, catch up, smile. They do this every week, producing more than 40 blankets a year as part of the Project Linus’ network of volunteers whose blankets fill the cabinets of hospitals across the GTA.
Every group member brings different experience.
Debbie Burchell’s love of sewing and quilting began 40 years ago – two decades before Project Linus even existed in Canada. She made her own clothes in high school, and recalled when she wore a pair of corduroy knickers she had made with patterned socks.
“My friends would ask me ‘where’s the rest of your pants?’ and make fun of me all the time, but I didn’t care. It was just fun,” she said.
But quilting was always a family and community affair for Burchell. She learned the craft from her “future mother-in-law,” and was introduced to the Jones Library Quilters by her daughter, who had brought her own children to the library.
On Tuesdays, everyone who comes to help make the blankets has a different job — hand-stitching, organizing, cutting and designing.
Lynn Yamazaki stores the blankets until it’s time to drop them off with Delic, and the group doesn’t see their quilts again as they go on to their next stop on the Project Linus journey.
Started in Canada in 1998, the project now has 44 designated chapters in Canada. Delic’s network, as York region coordinator, is made up of groups and individuals. She gets blankets from quilting clubs like the one that operates in the Jones Library, from her neighbours, and even from parents whose children got a blanket in the hospital and want to return the gesture.
Jones Library Quilter Debbie’s love of sewing and quilting started 40 years ago. “I made my clothes in high school, and one of the things I made, they were called knickers, and they would just go below your knee.”
For babies, the smaller blankets are used for warmth and for the preemies draped over the incubators for visual stimulation and extra darkness. Bigger blankets for toddlers, kids and teens. Nurses give them to children when they need them.
“Hundreds and thousands of blankets go through my hands,” Delic says.
At Scarborough Grace Hospital, a nurse sits casually with her arms across her chest. Her calm demeanor could lead a casual onlooker to miss the tiny premature baby that is tucked inside her arms. Across the nursery, the other preemies sleep beneath colourful quilts draped over their incubators. They’re small – so small, nestled in their blankets.
Sue Regan, the Child Life Specialist at Scarborough Grace for 25 years, has barely 20 minutes to chat before she gets paged – she has eight kids going into surgery today. She puts a blanket, a colouring book and box of crayons at the end of the bed for children recovering from surgery overnight.
Regan says it’s the longevity of Project Linus that makes it “phenomenal.” As Child Life Specialist, she’s responsible for receiving all donations for the paediatric wing and she sees how often donation excitement dwindles past the holidays. But Project Linus stays consistent, bringing Scarborough Grace and neighbouring campus Scarborough General 100 blankets every two weeks.
She moves around the paediatric wing in a whirlwind. Regan and Pearly Chad – a paediatric nurse – open the two cabinets filled with quilted, knitted and crocheted blankets. They say no blanket has ever been turned down.
“These families are very grateful,” Regan says. “Even though they don’t have a face to [put to] the blanket.”
There are many faces to the Jones Library Quilters.
Sunny Mills’ speaking voice carries, kind and commanding, as she explains the group’s tasks before they meet next. She is a retired gym teacher who decided to go to art school. There’s a moment when her artistic life becomes evident as the group is laying out different fabrics – often donated or recycled materials – for a quilt.
“Maybe my colour theory course is working,” Mills says. “There’s too much green in that yellow to go with this, so I think that works better.”
Klaire, a sixth-month-old black lab with chocolate brown eyes, lays patiently and peacefully under the table while the group quilts. Lynn Yamazaki has been fostering dogs like Klaire for 9 years. She’s brought her dogs to other groups before she found the Jones Library Quilters. Yamazaki started quilting in about 2005 while she was in the hospital with breast cancer.
“It was kind of a therapy, like art therapy or music therapy they have for people undergoing treatment.”
Jones Library in Leslieville. On March 12, 2019 (Emma Buchanan/T·) Cabinets around the nursery are stocked with blankets from Project Linus. Nurses know where to get them when needed. On March 25, 2019. (Emma Buchanan/T·)
Ellen Dahlstorm started quilting more recently than the rest of the group. She doesn’t say much, but her eyes are always smiling. There’s a moment when two group members are in a lively debate about which colour square to use. She has a mischievous gleam in her eyes as she smiles, raising a finger to her lips as if to say: “Shh, I’m staying out of this.”
These Tuesday nights in Leslieville build a community: that’s woven into the 44 chapters and numerous hospitals across the country that make up Project Linus. The Jones Library Quilters hope the recipients cherish the blankets they create.
“I just hope it makes them feel comfort. Just a little better.” Mills says.
“I hope they keep them long enough to become curious,” Burchell adds, “and learn to appreciate what went into them.”
When the quilts are dropped off by the Jones Library Quilters, Delic, Project Linus’ York region coordinator distributes them to different hospitals, including Scarborough Grace.
“I’m a mom of eight kids, so I’ve been down that line and I know what it is,” Delic says. “I’ve had children in the hospital, my kids in the hospital. And it is a scary time for them, and so I just wanted to give back to the community.”
Delic washes, folds and packages each blanket with a ribbon and “parent letter” that lets families know where the blankets come from, and that they’re a gift to keep. When Delic gets the call from the hospital, she has the blankets on hand. She fills up her truck with a hundred blankets and drives.
When Delic and Regan, the Child Life Specialist, meet in front of Scarborough Grace, they fill up linen carts with blankets. Regan brings the carts up to paediatrics wing on her own. As Regan sorts through them, she notes the different designs of the blankets so she knows which to match to each “little one.” If a child likes a certain superhero, she can bring them a Spiderman blanket. If a child likes cats, there’s a blanket with kitties.
Rarely, the blankets are used for a different and heartbreaking kind of comfort in mourning babies who have died. The families receive the same blanket they would if the child were alive. They have the choice as to whether they keep it or bury the baby in it.
Regan says although some Project Linus donors express a preference that their blankets not be used for deceased babies, there is a need because the babies are so small and sometimes parents don’t have anything of their own to use. Sometimes the babies die before the pregnancies reach full term – just 20 to 21 weeks gestation.
“They almost look like Barbie dolls. They’re just tiny, tiny, tiny babies.” Regan says, “So it’s not like a full term baby.”
Regan has gone to visit a few quilting and knitting groups as part of her work. She says it was emotional because it “put a face” to the program.
“This is a group of people that make this successful,” Regan says. “When you see about how many people are involved, right to the nurse that gives out the blanket, there’s probably at least 10 people that touch that blanket before it’s given.”
The windows of the paediatric hallway show the city unfolding for miles. Regan walks to the elevators with a family of three, their son in his pajamas. He’s going into surgery today.
When he goes to his room to recover afterwards, there will be a blanket folded at the end of his bed.