Feb. 17—Few fabrics feel as warm and cuddly as fleece, especially when two pieces are tied together to make a blanket. Cozying up with a tied fleece blanket is like being "Wrapped in a Hug," a new community impact project by the Junior League of Waterloo-Cedar Falls.

On a recent sub-zero Saturday morning, about two dozen or more Junior League members gathered in the Fred Becker Elementary School gym with bundles of fleece to make the no-sew blankets. When completed, a stack of about 200 blankets was ready to hand out at local high schools, Allen Child Protection Center, Four Oaks Family and Children's Services, and the Boys & Girls Club Teen Center.

A tag was attached to each blanket offering links to area mental health resources and hotlines.

"Mental health is an important concern with teenagers, especially because of COVID-19," said Melanie Knipp, JL president. The pandemic has created more stress, anxiety and pressure for teenagers because of social isolation from friends and lack of extracurricular activities and sports, for example, in addition to other issues that may face teenagers, she explained.

Junior League's community impact focus is on teenagers, and teen-related projects receive 80% of the league's efforts. Typically, the organization sponsors Prom Closet each spring to sell prom dresses for $20 each, aimed at teens who otherwise couldn't afford to go to prom.

Prom Closet has been canceled this year due to the pandemic, Knipp said, so members wanted to find a different way to serve teenagers in the Cedar Valley.

"The need is there, but we had trouble pinpointing a focus on what we could do and how we could coordinate a hands-on event that was safe for our members to gather and still benefits teenagers. One of our members works for Allen Child Protection Center and said there was a huge need for tied blankets," Knipp said.

Teenagers seem to gravitate to the blankets, said Alyssa Verheyen, JL vice president of marketing. "We checked into other organizations that serve teenagers to see if they were willing to accept blanket donations. They were all happy to take the blankets," she said.

The fleece was purchased locally on sale in a variety of colors and patterns. It was measured and cut to the size of a large lap blanket with fringed ends so two pieces could be tied together to make the blanket. Volunteers who were unable to attend the Saturday session, or didn't feel comfortable yet working in a group, were able to pick up fleece bundles and go home to make blankets. Members wore masks and the gym offered plenty of space to distance from each other.

People also could sponsor a blanket for $20, which covers the cost of fabric, labels and printing costs; at least 57 were sponsored.

"Our vision is to provide extra warmth and comfort to a teenager, and the blanket is something that they own and can take with them," said Heather Cue, JL vice president of community impact. "Volunteer members will be making contact to hand-deliver them to organizations."

Community impact projects boost member experience and leadership opportunities, as well as create camaraderie among members, Cue noted.

Using the blankets as a means to provide access to teen mental health services was important to members, Knipp explained. "It's more than just using the buzz words. We want to shed light on the rising mental health needs among teenagers. The importance of these community impact projects is to be there for the community.

"It's good for members to learn about the needs in the community, and with projects like 'Wrapped in a Hug,' we get to stand up and do something about it," Knipp added.

Each mental health resources tag has a QR code teenagers can scan with their phones for a link to the Junior League website www.jlwcf.org and resource information on such organizations as Black Hawk-Grundy County Mental Health, Pathways Behavioral Services, NAMI Black Hawk County, crisis hotlines and others.


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