You remember Linus, don't you—the loveable "Peanuts" character who just adored his security blanket?
The volunteers at Project Linus sure do, as stickers, pins and other depictions of the character first drawn by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz abound at the project's regional headquarters at Caste Village in Whitehall Borough, officially the home for "blanketeers" from Allegheny, Westmoreland and Butler counties.
Linus loved his blanket, and Project Linus' volunteers love children, so much so that they produce thousands of handmade blankets every year to send to needy kids who could use some comfort.
And thanks to The Royal Mile Company, the management operation that serves the Caste family properties, including Caste Village, Project Linus volunteers have a rent-free place in Whitehall not just to meet multiple times per month but also to use as a factory for their efforts.
"Without Caste donating this space to us, we would not be able to do what we do now," said Lois Misko, the tri-county region's Project Linus coordinator, who said that her predecessor had to run the operation out of her own home.
Instead, The Royal Mile has given Project Linus a Caste Village storefront between the Royal Lounge Restaurant and a trophy shop facing Weyman Road.
The Linus site has trophies inside, as well, in the form of many thank you cards and press clippings sitting in scrapbooks or hanging on walls that attest to the group's value.
Misko and her fellow volunteers have a bathroom, a kitchen and hundreds if not thousands of feet of space to crochet, stitch, sew, seam, hem and even hum and haw around a friendly knitting circle.
"And we've never seen a bill," said Misko, who uses the space also for storage of materials and completed blankets waiting to be delivered.
"My neighbor and I were storing this stuff in our basements and garages," said Misko, who lives in Whitehall. "We used to meet in a church hall, and we had to tote everything to the hall for meetings—sewing machines, cutting boards. Especially in the winter, it was miserable. This (Caste Village place) is just wonderful."
For Tom Caste, president of The Royal Mile, giving Misko and her group that space in April 2011 was a pleasure.
"I think Lois Misko is one of the finest women I've worked with and am proud to have her and the organization at Caste Village," Caste said. "I am a very large advocate and supporter of Project Linus as a whole."
Caste's oldest son, Vaughn, and his daughter Scarlett have both been recipients of Project Linus blankets "to which they are deeply attached to this day," Tom said. "Therefore, Project Linus' mission of providing blankets for children in need is a cause close to my heart. I've seen how children can form emotional, comforting attachments to them."
Specifically, Misko's group serves hospitals and other child care centers in the greater Pittsburgh area by donating colorful and comfortable blankets to them for use at hospital administration's discretion.
"The intent is to donate handmade blankets to ill or traumatized kids," Misko said. "It's either kids that are in hospitals or kids that are going through tough times."
Misko said that her group gives large quilts to residential facilities for use as ordinary blankets. It also gives smaller blankets to ambulance workers in case of young patients and to a number of other places that one might not normally think of.
"Emergency rooms love them because people come in, and it's just a really traumatic time," she said. "Not only the kids, but the parents are really upset. And the nurses say, often, the blanket is really what enables them to treat the child. It just gives everybody something else to focus on and settle them down a little bit."
Misko said that over 4 million handmade blankets have been distributed by Project Linus nationwide, including almost 90,000 from the Pittsburgh area, of which about 9,000 were delivered in 2011.
This writer visited the Project Linus site at Caste Village on Monday night to learn more about the group and to volunteer to the best of his ability. After getting photos and interviews, about a hundred made-with-care tags were sliced apart to be attached to finished products.
He and Misko weren't nearly the only ones there that night, as about two dozen other volunteers—mostly regulars ranging in age from 18 to 84 years—turned out to work on blankets and related projects.
Lauren Coleman, who lives in nearby Brentwood Borough but is a 2001 graduate of Baldwin High School, is one of the group's youngest members and could see herself volunteering for Project Linus for some time.
"It's something to do," said Coleman, who is an occupational therapy team leader at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, "and it gives back to the community without having to go too far from home.
"It's nice to get thank you cards from local families. Since I work in health care, it's nice to do something outside of work to contribute."
Coleman was encouraged to join Project Linus by Pat Hytla, of Baldwin Borough, who also recruited Coleman's mother, JoAnn, of Whitehall.
"Mrs. Hytla recruited like half of the people here," Lauren joked.
That's been typical with this particular group, Misko said, which has "snowballed," as she put it. After all, Misko recruited Hytla in the first place.
The two of them met at a bridal shower, and Misko learned that Hytla knew how to crochet. That's all that Misko needed.
"I'm dangerous," she joked.
But the group could still use more help. The blankets are piling up fast, and Misko said that she's looking for someone to pick up eight bags of blankets every two weeks and deliver them to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
The group is also in the market for a discount washer and dryer set—possibly a donation of both—to set up in its Caste location so that blankets can be laundered before being delivered. For now, Misko and other volunteers are taking all of their blankets to their homes to wash.
While most of the group's members live somewhat near Caste Village, one woman—Valerie Barna—came to Whitehall on Monday night all the way from Franklin Park Borough in the Wexford area to help make blankets.
"A friend of mine started here, so she asked me to join," Barna said.
After a long day of work, driving and volunteering, she doesn't get home on some Project Linus days until around 11 p.m.
"I was looking for a volunteering opportunity, and this sounded good to me," she said. "So here I am."
And you're never too old to help. Just ask Vivian Moll, the group's oldest member at 84 years young. Moll attended her first Project Linus meeting on Monday, as she was encouraged to join by friends who also live in Whitehall's Steeplechase area.
Anyone interested in volunteering can email Misko at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 412-207-8259. If you cannot attend meetings to make blankets on-site, blankets made elsewhere that meet Project Linus' standards can still be accepted.
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