It was delivery day at Brookwood Elementary School and the students in Shannon Cole’s class knew it.
“I’m so excited!” exclaimed Dodger Nitti, who was waiting for the visitors to arrive.
Nitti and his classmates had not seen their new friends from Tallwood High School in more than two months, but today was the day the design class students would return with special handmade gifts for everyone.
Moments later, the classroom door opened and their special guests walked in carrying colorful bags.
“There they are!” exclaimed one student.
“They’re here!” announced another.
“Do you have blankets?” asked a third student.
They did. And judging by the smiles on everyone’s faces, it was worth the wait.
The blankets, personalized for each student with fabric featuring a favorite item or interest and with his name on a pocket, were custom made for another purpose.
“People who have sensory needs, whether it be due to a processing disorder or autism, often seek input to help regulate their emotions. The weight of the blankets helps feed that input and allows them to calm and ultimately helps them to self-regulate,” Cole explained. “The pressure is a way that allows them to gain that input independently when they are taught to use the blanket as a strategy to help themselves calm.”
The special design of the blankets – created with weighted balls that are evenly distributed among quilt-like squares stitched throughout the fabric – also means they are not cheap. Ranging from $90 to $150 each, according to Cole, it is cost prohibitive for some families to purchase blankets to have at home.
This was one of the reasons Cynthia Chadwick wanted her high school design students to create weighted blankets last school year. When the Tallwood teacher was not able to obtain grant funding to make the blankets, she temporarily shelved the idea. A personal connection to a child with autism and wanting her second- and third-year design students to complete a unique, higher-level project caused her to reconsider the idea this year.
As it turns out, Cole’s daughter Abbey Cole is a Design III student in Chadwick’s class.
“When I shared the idea, Abbey said, ‘Well, my mom just said that would be a great project for your class to do.’ I said, ‘Then this was meant to be,’” recalled Chadwick. “I’m just really excited for them. They were very, very diligent and worked very hard. I just gave them a little bit of advice here and there, and they figured this all out on their own. I’m really impressed with how everything turned out.”
Chadwick’s excitement, however, was no match for that of the Brookwood students.
“It’s footballs. My name!” exclaimed Nitti, whose blanket was made to honor his beloved team, the New England Patriots.
“It’s SpongeBob. I love SpongeBob,” Jayson Gossman repeated as he walked throughout the room clutching his blanket.
“This is SO cool! Batman!” said Tyler Perez, wearing a T-shirt featuring the superhero.
And for as much as Perez loved his Batman blanket, he was equally fascinated by the green, heart-shaped note he found in the pocket.
“Do you want me to read it to you?” his teacher asked. “It says: ‘Thank you for being so patient while we made your blanket. We hope you love it. From Abbey, Mariah, Briana and Isabella.’”
“I do,” whispered Perez thoughtfully before exclaiming, “And look! She actually signed my name on it!”
Each student received a personal note in the pocket of his blanket.
Levi Angulo loved his blanket featuring Harry Potter, his favorite character who has “a scar and a wand.” George Galeota and Nicholas Harakal saw their favorite characters on blanket fabric with scenes from Star Wars.
For the Tallwood design students, delivery day was meant with equal parts excitement and relief.
“I’m just really glad that we were able to finish it,” said Isabella Erestain, a Tallwood senior. “The hardest part about the blankets were the measurements because they all had to be tailored for each child based on 10 percent of their body weight plus one or two pounds depending on if the child was taller or bigger in general. Once we finished that, they all went pretty quickly.”
“I am just very excited and relieved to see their reactions,” Erestain added. “I honestly didn’t think they would be that excited about them because it’s been several months since we first came.”
Mariah Lebron, a senior, sums up her recollection of that first meeting in one word, “Dodger.”
“Oh, he was funny,” Lebron said. “He was like, ‘I need footballs. The only thing I want is footballs.’ I was like, Oh my gosh, I have to find footballs.”
She did and Nitti couldn’t be happier.
“It’s good to know that we did something for students who actually needed them, and it’s cool to see how interactive they are with us,” Lebron said sitting on the middle of the classroom rug surrounded by students with blankets. “The work we do at school doesn’t compare to this at all. You do schoolwork and it’s just for the grade, but you do something like this and you actually see the happiness on their faces. It’s a lot more rewarding.”
Her design classmate, senior Briana Traut, agreed.
“I’m just really happy to see that they love them so much, and it was just a really great experience to be able to do something that would have a positive impact. I know they really appreciate it,” Traut said.
Abbey Cole appreciates that her design class has given her the opportunity to support others.
“Last year we made backpacks for children in the Care by Community program and this is kind of an extension of giving back to the community through a project, which is a part of our course and something we like to focus on.”
As for this year’s project, the Tallwood junior added, “It’s definitely exciting to see everyone have their blanket now and to interact with them knowing that they have been expecting and waiting for this.”
The connections between the elementary and high school students are the most memorable aspect for Shannon Cole.
“Personally, I feel like the most beautiful part of this project was the relationships that were built, and the time that they took to come in and get to know the students and who they are so that they could really personalize each blanket,” reflected Cole.
Carrying his personalized blanket and talking about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Nitti was asked what his favorite player would think about the football blanket.
With a broad smile, Nitti replied, “He would love it.”