Story and photos by Bruce Stambaugh, Contributor
Editor’s note: This event and our reporting on it occurred before social distancing became an urgent concern.
Comforters are aptly named. They comfort their makers, the givers, and those who receive them. That’s what makes them so appealing, so magical, so comforting, pun intended.
That’s also why seniors, students, and other volunteers joined forces on March 5 and 6 for a Comfort Blitz held at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Center. The crew had so much fun and help that they actually exceeded their goal of knotting 37 comforters. A total of 40 of the multi-colored blankets were completed, including one done by Eastern Mennonite School students at the school library.
“We were thrilled that we were able to complete that many,” said an ecstatic Deb Layman, the project’s co-organizer with LuAnn Bender. Layman said 115 students, kindergarten through 12th grade from EMS, helped knot, trim, and stitch the comforters over the two days of the event.
Layman said the EMS kindergarten students also joined several groups of eighth-graders. It was the combined efforts of the students and adults that enabled them to surpass their goal, according to Bender.
“The idea of adding students to the blitz was to teach younger generations the art of knotting,” Layman said. “We hope the students can continue with the skills they learned.”
Andrea Wenger, director of advancement at EMS, said that the students were participating in the knotting as part of Mennonite Central Committee’s Great Winter Warmup. That was MCC’s campaign to have churches make 6,500 comforters in honor of the organization’s 100 anniversary. To date, the organization has received over 9,000.
“LuAnn and I really enjoyed hearing the conversational hum between the students and adults around the knotting tables,” Layman said. The pair had set up seven work stations in the hall where the knotting work was done.
Knotting comforters may seem like a simple enough task. The process is a service with great rewards. Knotters used needle and crochet thread to draw the three layers together, according to Layman. The blankets were then bound by machine sewing the three layers together.
The materials of the 60 inches by 80 inches blanket-like covers are made of nothing fancy. In fact, many are adorned with leftover cloth and scraps of material. Placed in seemingly random patterns, the finished products become the comforters’ tops.
The patches of mismatched cloth, mostly cotton, are stitched, and sewn to a fabric backing. In between, a soft cotton batting gives each one that cuddly feeling, that actual comfort from which they are named. Employees of Rocky Cedars, Dayton, where the batting was purchased, cut it to the exact size.
The completed comforters were stored in the MCC Relief Center in Hinton before being sent to MCC US in Akron, Pennsylvania. MCC, in turn, distributes the comforters worldwide to those in need, according to Ann Hershberger, assistant executive director of the aid organization. Hershberger, who attended the blitz, shared how and where the comforters are sent and used.
“Most are used as blankets,” Hershberger said. “But they also serve as privacy dividers and floor coverings.”
As stated on its website, MCC US is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development, and peace. In all their programs, they are committed to relationships with their local partners and churches.
VMRC resident Betty Brunk and her sister Louretta Wilson started the blitz in 2007.
“Louretta would have churches in the Newport News area where she lives assemble the comfort tops,” Brunk said. “Then she would bring them to Harrisonburg where people would gather at Weavers Mennonite Church to knot them.”
“Louretta usually brought 30 tops, and we would knot 25 in the two days,” Brunk explained. “We did that twice a year before the blitz got to be too much for Louretta and me.”
Brunk and her sister turned over leadership of the project to Layman and Bender after seven years. “We are so proud of what this has turned into,” Brunk said.
Now 86, Brunk said, “It feels so good to do one little thing for others.” Brunk is a long-time resident of Harrisonburg. Her late husband, Truman, served as the chaplain at Eastern Mennonite University for 13 years.
It takes a lot of work to produce a comforter. The knotting epitomizes the effort and the results. Hershberger can testify to this point. While visiting Haiti a couple of years ago, she saw the blankets being used in a homeless shelter for boys.
“It was amazing to walk into the shelter and see the colorful comforts on every one of the bunk beds stacked three high,” Hershberger said. “The comforts not only kept them warm at night, but they brightened up their lives, too.”
Layman and her husband Ken run the Tried & True Thrift Shop on University Ave. in Harrisonburg. As the cloth is donated, Layman passes some of it on for the comforter tops.
After organizing the blitz for the last five years, Bender and Layman are looking for others to take the lead in coordinating the project. Interested persons should contact Layman at Tried & True by calling 540-442-7250.
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