BLOOMINGTON – When Mary Balagna heard about the shootings at a school in Connecticut and thought about the children traumatized by the event, she knew just what to do.
The vice president of Bloomington-based Project Linus began contacting chapters of the organization, which makes and distributes handmade blankets and afghans to help children who are seriously ill, traumatized or otherwise in need.
In less than an hour, she had commitments for all the blankets she needed – 700 to 800.
“It was an unbelievable response,” said Balagna, who lives in Forsyth. “We sent 50 from right here in Central Illinois.”
Carol Babbitt of Bloomington, executive director of Project Linus, said the group’s blankets – all made by volunteers – usually stay within the area served by the local chapters. But when a major event occurs that would overwhelm an individual chapter, “we put a call out to coordinators across the country,” she said.
Usually it takes several days to line up the needed blankets, Babbitt said. This time, “in 55 minutes, we had all the blankets.”
It was another school shooting that started Project Linus’ involvement in large-scale efforts – the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado. Since then, the group has also shipped blankets to survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the Joplin tornado and, more recently, superstorm Sandy.
But, Balagna said, “This time had to be the most emotionally draining. This is the first time we felt, ‘This could have been me.’”
The idea for Project Linus was launched on Christmas Eve 1995, said Babbitt, who has been involved with the group since 1999.
The blankets are intended to provide a sense of security and comfort — like the security blanket constantly carried by the “Peanuts” character Linus. But they also provide makers of the quilts and blankets with a sense of purpose, Balagna and Babbitt said.
“When something like this happens, you just want to make it go away. You want to do something to help,” Babbitt said.
In this case, blankets were shipped directly to two local chapters in Connecticut that handled the distribution to the survivors of the Dept. 14 attack that left 28 people, including 20 first-graders, dead in Newtown, Conn.
While volunteers supply the blankets — knitted, crocheted, sewn and even no-sew fleece blankets — “the shipping depletes our funds rather quickly,” Babbitt said.
So, while the organization welcomes volunteers to its blanket brigade, they also need monetary donations to cover such costs.
If you are interested in helping with blankets or donations, go to www.projectlinus.org.
Balagna first began making blankets to give to children through her husband, Terry, an emergency room physician who is now director of emergency medical services at Decatur Memorial Hospital. She joined Project Linus in 1999 and heads its Central Illinois chapter in addition to serving as national vice president.