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Project Hug expands its outreach thanks to local volunteers, donors

The Project Hug crew [from left]: Patty Benner, Ann Wilkerson, Mary Ann Raghebi, Ann DiFranco, Cathy Johnson and Anita Gamble

After a year of sewing, gluing and transporting, one group of local women has more than tripled its outreach efforts in providing weight blankets to students across the St. Louis region. 

In November 2018, West Newsmagazine reported that the Project Hug crew had supplied over 200 weighted, therapy blankets to Special School District [SSD] classrooms across the region. As of June 2019, that number has grown to almost 1,000 blankets going to every school in the district. The blankets will be delivered to students at the start of the 2019-2020 school year. 

The weighted blankets have a variety of uses in the classroom but are commonly used by students on the autism spectrum or students with conditions like anxiety, ADHD among others. Each blanket contains an average of 15 weight packets, each made by hand. The blankets weigh between three and nine pounds, and so far, the group has stuffed and sewn over three tons of blankets.

In addition to blankets, Project Hug has started making weighted scarves [or “snakes”] for students to wear around their necks or hold as a means of relaxation. 

The idea for making the blankets began when Patty Benner, an SSD audiology assistant who serves on the Special Education Foundation [SEF] board, noticed a demand in classrooms. It was through the SEF board that Benner met Chesterfield resident Ann DiFranco, who previously had produced handmade quilts for St. Louis Children’s Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House. 

Since 2018, the Project Hug team has doubled its size while increasing its blanket production and distribution area.

Mary Ann Raghebi, who lives in the same complex as DiFranco, makes the weights that go into the blankets while Project Hug members Anita Gamble, Cathy Johnson, Ann Wilkerson and other volunteers work to stuff and sew each blanket by hand.

“There’s always more kids,” Benner said. “The teachers also are very appreciative.”

In November, the group received the district’s Special Ambassador’s Award, which DiFranco now displays in her Chesterfield home.

“That night, we had a chance to say a few words,” DiFranco said. “I told them our quota was 1,000 blankets. Well, we’ve reached it.”

Benner nominated the group for the award due to the groups’ persistence in expanding its outreach to every school in the district.

“It’s the highest award available, and it’s given to people who are not employed at Special School District but who are involved in the community,” Benner said.

Sometimes the blankets and scarf materials are purchased out-of-pocket, but tax-deductible donations also are accepted online at sef-stl.org. 

The group has received donations from multiple local entities, including $400 from RedKey Realtors, which also awarded the group with its Active Kindness distinction in September 2018. Walmart donated a “generous” undisclosed amount and  Spartech LLC works with Benner to supply the group with the specialty plastic pellets used to make the blanket weights.

“We couldn’t do this without that,” Benner said.

As for the future, DiFranco said there are no signs of their sewing machines slowing down anytime soon. “We’ll keep going and it’s all thanks to these angels,” she said of their local donors and volunteers. 

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