Quilters take on a special cause

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OLIVE BRANCH, Miss. (AP) — "He's Sew Fine" by the Chiffons?

Close, for a quilting/sewing bee taking in '50s rock classics as they stitched away at the Olive Branch Senior Center.

But the dozen women gathered were abuzz with dedication to service — helping autistic kids across DeSoto County sleep and find solace with specially designed, gaily decorated weighted blankets — and having fun doing it.

"This is 'Thelma and Louise,'" quipped Brenda Garner of Southaven, describing her repartee with pal Phyllis Alford of Olive Branch. "Oh, I'm just kidding. It's more like 'Lucy and Ethel' with us."

"We get to see each other, hang out and sew some blankets," said Pannay Guigley of Hernando, the mother of an autistic daughter and, with friend and fellow Quilting in the Grove member Dorothy Bundy of Byhalia, organizer of the all-volunteer Weighted Blanket Project. An active "almost 40," Guigley teaches a class for Sew Memphis, has a master's degree in education from Penn State and since January has been part-time assistant to Brian Hicks, director the DeSoto Museum in Hernando.

"We started this last spring, in May, when I made a weighted blanket for Serena," her 7-year-old daughter with Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism, said Guigley. Blankets weighted with sewn-in pockets of "poly pellets" or similar washable material help relax and calm down autistic children, she said. "It's like deep-pressure therapy, therapists say. If you put one over your shoulders or on your lap, it's like a massage."

A skilled sewer/quilter — "I learned from my mom and grandmom" back home in Pittsburgh, Pa. — Guigley also was inspired to make that first blanket to save household costs. She and husband Kevin, a research chemist, have two other children.

"To buy a weighted blanket online can cost from $80 to $120 each," she said. Guigley made "some extras" for friends with children on the "autism spectrum," and word just got around. Next thing, Guigley was getting requests from therapists and fellow parents of autistic children, and suddenly she had a mission to thread.

"I got so many calls. It was me and Dorothy for a while, then we asked our friends."

They had a ready base of volunteers for what became the Weighted Blanket Project: members of Quilting in the Grove, which meets the second Monday of each month at 10 a.m. at the senior center. The president is Sharon Arnold.

Noting the cost of just one blanket, "multiply that if you have three or four autistic children in your family," said Guigley.

And Bundy pointed out how big a domestic deal a blanket can be: "Autistic children often have trouble sleeping; they sleep in spurts. But with a weighted blanket, they can stay asleep all night. And that means the whole household can sleep." The work of Weighted Blanket "warms my heart," said the FedEx retiree.

The blankets, made from quilters-weight cotton or flannel, can weigh up to 12 pounds, "for anyone over 120 pounds, about 10 percent of body weight," said Guigley. "That's the largest we make, about 72 inches long and 50 inches wide." By comparison, her blanket for Serena weighs 3 pounds, and the group also makes weighted "lap pads" that are convenient for travel or school or trips to the doctor or therapist.

Bundy "keeps everything on track," said Guigley. Indeed, Bundy lists the number of blankets distributed so far at exactly 54. At last week's session, with help from notable quilter Dana Lynch of Olive Branch, the expected output was 11 more blankets and five more lap pads. The group hears from parents and therapists to identify individual needs and tastes for a blanket, and uses donated materials.

"Our program survives on donations and God has blessed us," said Guigley. "It seems as if whenever we get down to our last poly pellet, just then we'll get another bag."

Volunteer Grace Maxson has a grandson, 9-year-old Ethan, with autism. At home, she's making him "a traveling blanket" — with his favorite color, lavender, and Monsters Inc. designs — but here she was making a blanket another child will embrace.

"It's such an essential thing, so important," Maxson said.

Guigley said such spirit gives her the inspiration to suggest a wider role for Weighted Blanket. "We've talked about spreading it to Memphis, and south of us." The group meets about every three months, and may make the senior center its base. But wherever it goes, Weighted Blanket spreads a lot of heart.

"What I love about the South," said Guigley, "is that there are so many generous people, so willing to give of their time and talents."


Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com

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