Turning Fleece Blankets into ‘Armor’ for Sick Kids

December 23, 2016 6:00 AM

How a former pro soccer player’s Fleece & Thank You organization brings hope to sick kids through handmade blankets — nearly 9,000 in 2016 alone.

Tara and Nicholas Kristock and a pile of donated fleece blankets

Every holiday season, people look for ways to help their communities. Institutions like the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital are a frequent beneficiary, with toys and blankets among the most common items donated by organizations such as Girl Scouts, college fraternities and employee groups.

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Once the new year begins and the holiday spirit wanes, so does much of the steady stream of donations many children’s hospitals see.

It’s this “feast or famine” trend that Nicholas Kristock is trying to make a thing of the past for hospitals like Mott.

"One of the first hurdles a sick kid faces is not feeling defeated just by the initial reality a hospital room represents. … What can we do to change that?"
Nicholas Kristock

A spark of inspiration

The native of Novi, Michigan, returned home in early October 2015 after playing professional soccer in Australia for two years. During his time playing at home and abroad, he had particularly enjoyed the charity opportunities he participated in as a soccer player.

“One of the best parts of my time playing soccer was working with groups like Make-A-Wish and local hospitals to brighten the days of kids going through medical treatment,” he says.

Now, at age 25 and with time on his hands, he was looking for his next career move, knowing only one thing: He wanted to make a difference. His sister, Tara, a nurse on the Lloyd Carr Pediatric Cancer Unit at Mott, told him the answer was simple: Make a blanket.

“Hospital rooms can be stark, sterile, scary places for kids facing a chronic illness,” says Kristock. “I learned from my sister how one of the first hurdles a sick kid faces is not feeling defeated just by the initial reality a hospital room represents, and I thought, ‘What can we do to change that?’”

Kristock got started right away.

By Oct. 6, 2015, he filled out paperwork to create a not-for-profit organization, which he called Fleece & Thank You. Its first event came together at Central Michigan University weeks later, and by Christmas the organization was delivering colorful fleece blankets to children at 10 hospitals across Michigan and Ohio.

A personalized fleece blanket tag from Fleece & Thank You

Armor for warriors

Fleece blankets have a twofold impact for ill children. Their soft warmth wards off the chill that often accompanies treatment, particularly for cancer patients. Perhaps more importantly, though, they provide much-needed encouragement.

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Kristock and his team refer to the blankets as “armor for warriors.”

“The key to a child conquering the standard hospital environment is to provide them with something bright and comforting to combat the darkness,” says Kristock. “We can provide that motivation to endure long treatments and the confidence in knowing someone is rooting for you.”

That “someone” in Fleece & Thank You’s case means hundreds of individual donors, groups and organizations that have joined the movement through making blankets.

Fleece & Thank You offers foolproof blanket templates and guides that kids as young as 5 can execute, with adult help. Individuals can purchase kits on Fleece & Thank You’s website, or use their own materials to make blankets using Fleece & Thank You’s templates and instructions.

Key to Fleece & Thank You’s success, however, has been the participation of groups and organizations.

College groups, corporations and youth clubs have been some of the most frequent partners, scheduling Fleece & Thank You events for everything from strategic retreats to study-break activities. Kristock and team provide the materials and guides, and the groups provide the energy and support for the kids.

With its message of “Make a blanket. Make a video. Make a difference,” Fleece & Thank You’s secret ingredient may just be its unique video component.

“The ability to record a video for the child receiving the blanket is a special bonus for many of our partners,” Kristock says.

Volunteers can upload a video, which is then listed on a label sewn onto each blanket, so the warrior receiving the blanket can receive a message of encouragement from its creator.

“Our partners like that connection they’re able to have. Most hospitals aren’t able to allow groups to distribute donated items to patients directly, due to security and infection protocols, so you really lose the personal connection that is so empowering for volunteers,” Kristock says.

The ability to create a video to accompany their blanket creation gives donors the opportunity to pair their contribution with a heartfelt message of support and encouragement.

“The video is a really special part of what we do. It shows the recipient that this isn’t just a blanket; it’s a reminder that there are people pulling for them.”

Tara and Nicholas delivering fleece blankets to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital patients

A warm, bright future

The success of Fleece & Thank You has surprised even Kristock just over one year since its founding.

“We provide service to 23 hospitals across Michigan on a monthly basis,” says Kristock, noting that in 2016 it distributed nearly 9,000 handmade fleece blankets. Almost one-third of the blankets have been delivered to kids at Mott.

Crowd favorites? “Superhero patterns are definitely the favorite,” notes Kristock.

His sister, a favorite nurse for many families on the pediatric cancer unit at Mott, often receives special requests from patients who know her connection to the organization.

“It’s still funny for me. Patients will ask me when my brother is coming again, or request a certain pattern if one comes in the next delivery. I can really see the difference his work is making firsthand,” she says. “It feels pretty good to see him making such an impact.”