John Stoeffler, a former Army Infantry officer who served in Korea in the mid-1960s, always has had a heart for soldiers and their families. But it is thanks to the efforts of local volunteers that he’s able to do something about it.
In 2008, Stoeffler and his wife, Linda, created the Sweet Dreams Picture Pillow Project to provide comfort to children whose parents are deployed.
Digital images, provided by the military families, are transferred onto muslin using a high heat press. Linda then bastes and stuffs each pillow before turning it over for final sewing by one of nine volunteers, affectionately known as the Pillow Platoon.
Despite no direct advertising, the Pillow Project has surpassed the 7,000 pillow mark – all provided free of charge to military families.
John says the project would not be possible without the support they receive.
All nine of the volunteers are Linda’s friends from church, their neighborhood and the local chapter of the Red Hat Society, to which Linda belongs. They take the pillows home to finish sewing them by hand, which can take up to 30 minutes.
Kathy Wilken has been involved with the project since its inception and has sewn about 1,700 pillows.
“This is just a tiny way of giving back to people who have given so much,” she said.
Volunteer Betty Wapelhorst said her husband served in the military so they consider themselves a patriotic family. Joann Keller said she looks at the picture as she sews and thinks about how happy that pillow will make the child receiving it. Mary Jo Schnieders, who heard about the project through the neighborhood, said she prays “that all the soldiers are safe.”
Praying over each pillow as they are sewn is a common thread among the volunteers.
Once the pillows are sewn and returned, John does a final inspection before shipping them, usually within a week of receiving the request. (Pillows can be requested by emailing email@example.com.)
Even local youth get involved when time allows. Trevor Weststeyn, a neighborhood teen, helped box and ship over 800 pillows. And the network of support does not stop there.
Mike Wilkerson maintains the project’s website, pillowprojectusa.com; Schnucks Markets donates the plastic bags used to protect the pillows during shipping; Coastal Business Supplies helps with the high-heat transfer sheets; the Ballwin Post Office helps with packaging; Office Depot and Joanns Fabrics give discounts on office supplies and fabrics; and the list goes on.
It costs approximately $8 to make each pillow, so the Stoefflers appreciate corporate and private help in keeping costs down.
“I like the pillow because it has my daddy’s picture on it, and it makes me feel less miserable when he’s at work at the hospital,” said Esther, who along with her brother and sisters, received a pillow when their father, a surgeon was deployed for the third time in four years.
Her brother, Joel, added, “I like that my pillow just has daddy and me on it.”
Even 1-year-old Evie, daughter of Jessica and U.S. Naval Engineman Barry, benefits from her Sweet Dreams pillow.
“The pillow goes with her in the car and she hugs and talks to (her daddy) as they travel. She loves on her daddy and knows him while he is gone!” exclaimed Evie’s grandma, Donna.
Stories like these make the project worthwhile, still, John said he would celebrate the day when the project was no longer needed. That would be the sweetest dream of all.