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Retired Petaluma banker makes security blankets for local kids

For more information about Project Linus

Project Linus North Bay/Sonoma: nbprojectlinus.weebly.com; Projectlinus.org

When Jenny Giacomini’s now 37-year-old son was a small boy, he had a blanket he loved literally to threads.

It was a warm quilt one of her friends had made for him, and every night he insisted on snuggling with it to sleep.

“It was just so soft and special to him. It got washed so many times,” she recalled. “But you couldn’t get rid of it.”

Over time it fell to pieces until it was just a square of worn fabric. “I ended up pinning it to his pajamas until he was ready to let go of it,” she said with a chuckle.

The retired Petaluma banker and new grandma knew a special blanket is more than a piece of bedding. It is a something to cling to in the dark and emotionally difficult times; its familiarity and warmth are soothing. But it also simply can be something to play with and possess, an object of intimate connection not shared with just anyone.

Knowing how important a security blanket can be to a child, Giacomini decided to make it her cause to wrap as many kids as possible with blankets handmade with love. After reading in a magazine about a relatively new organization called The Linus Project that enlisted volunteers to make blankets for children in special need of a “lovey,” she stepped up to create a chapter in Sonoma County.

Eighteen years later, The Linus Project North Bay/Sonoma, under the unwavering guidance of Giacomini, has given 18,483 blankets to children of all ages, from newborns to teenagers. Handmade blankets have gone to kids in hospitals, at the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, the YWCA Shelter for Battered Women, community health clinics, boys and girls clubs, and numerous organizations and institutions that serve children. The Petaluma Police Department gets Project Linus blankets to keep in squad cars for kids in traumatic situations.

As Giacomini is frequently heard to say, “Nothing says security more than a blanket.”

Such an undertaking requires organization and a steady hand to manage a vast network of sewing volunteers, collect and store sometimes hundreds of blankets at a time and get them into the hands of children who could use the warm embrace of a handmade blanket.

For her steadfast commitment to offering comfort to kids for so many years, Giacomini has been selected to receive the North Bay Spirit Award for May. A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award singles out volunteers who demonstrate exceptional leadership and go all in for a cause, often identifying a need in the community and finding an enterprising way to fill it.

Admirers attribute Giacomini’s success as an organizer to her easygoing personality and welcoming attitude. Everyone’s efforts are appreciated and praised, they say.

“She’s very even-tempered. She doesn’t get flustered. She just gets along well with people and cares a lot about what we do,” said Kerry Donovan, who nominated Giacomini for the award. “And she’s got a good sense of humor, so we always have a good time. We keep getting new members, and that makes it fun.”

A Santa Rosa quilter who has been sewing for Project Linus almost from the beginning, Donovan said there is a lot more involved than many people realize. And Giacomini, aided by trusty wingwoman Laurie Ferguson, handles it all.

That includes recruiting volunteers to sew blankets, arranging pickups, inspecting and sewing Project Linus labels into each blanket, storing them, bagging them and dropping them off to recipient organizations. She also is a conduit for donated materials to help some of the sewers. Before the pandemic, she hosted monthly gatherings for volunteers, for everyone to show off their blankets and share information, camaraderie and support. Every Christmas she holds a crafts fair in her own east Petaluma home to raise money that goes to the parent organization in Belton, Missouri. Any expenses are then run through headquarters and reimbursed to chapters in all 50 states.

Strong network

Giacomini is the engine that manages the efforts of about 70 volunteers throughout the county. She is encouraging and diplomatic. Some have little or no experience sewing, like Girl Scout troops. Some are home hobbyists, and others are highly skilled artisans and quilt makers.

“She’s the thread that holds us all together. If she weren’t there, it would unravel,” said Ferguson, Giacomini’s friend and closest assistant.

The artistry in a blanket, to Giacomini, is less important than the love that goes into it. Kids don’t care if a seam is uneven, she declared. Her large storage closet contains simple fleece and flannel blankets in fun kid-friendly patterns, knit and crocheted throws and more elaborate quilts.

For more information about Project Linus

Project Linus North Bay/Sonoma: nbprojectlinus.weebly.com; Projectlinus.org

Nobody is made to feel less for their efforts, Ferguson said, which is why the chapter is prolific. “There’s nothing about our group that is about perfectionism. It’s not about impressing each other. It’s about helping kids, so everybody has a common goal.”

One regular recipient is the Community Child Care Council, which runs 14 state-funded preschool programs for low-income families in Sonoma County. Giacomini delivered 172 blankets to the organization within the last month. Director Amy McIntyre said one year they received enough to gift a blanket to every child in their program.

“The children just love their blankets,” she said. “Frequently they will bring them back to school as their napping blankets. That means they are very well loved if they want them as a napping blanket.”

Robin Bowen, executive director of The Child Parent Institute, a parent education and children’s mental health agency serving families in Sonoma County, said the blankets mean a lot, even to the teenagers.

“Many sleep in cars or shelters, or their parents can’t afford heat at night,” Bowen said. One counselor related how a mom with a 2-month-old baby came in for treatment and help with bonding and attachment. She was experiencing a lot of stress and also caring for a teenage daughter who had recently confided to her that she had been repeatedly molested.

In a note to Bowen, the counselor said, “Sending mom and baby home from treatment with a handmade quilt sewn with care was exactly what mom needed as a reminder of her role with caring for all of her children in the face of such significant adversity.”

For some of the new mothers who receive baby blankets through the Petaluma Health Center, it is a treasure.

“Some of them can’t even afford a blanket, and for them it’s a precious present. They get overwhelmed,” said clinic health educator Maria Hermosilla.

Inspired by a story

It was a Christmas Eve article in Parade Magazine in 1995 that inspired Karen Loucks of Denver to provide handmade blankets to a local children’s cancer center, giving birth to Project Linus.

The story, titled “Joy to the World,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams, was about 3-year-old Laura, whose special “blankie” helped her get through two years of brutal treatment for leukemia.

The idea resonated with home sewers, knitters and quilters, who love to practice their craft and find an extra layer of meaning in doing it for a child who could use the comfort. Since then 320 chapters have sprung up in all 50 states.

In the last 26 years, volunteers have stitched more than 8.5 million blankets for children. The project is named in cooperation with Peanuts Worldwide for Linus, the comic strip character by Charles Schulz who is never without his security blanket.

Like the organization’s founder, Giacomini was similarly inspired to start a local chapter in 2003 after reading about Project Linus.

She had been knitting and crocheting most of her life, and it seemed like a meaningful outlet for her hobby. In retrospect, she believes she also was motivated by her own need for some TLC. Her father had died two years earlier. The two were close and she was still dealing with her grief.

“I was looking for something to fill within me,” she said.

The 70-year-old spent decades working in banks, moving from teller up to branch manager; her last position was with what was then Petaluma Bank. But she had an empty nest and the business skills to organize. She created fliers looking for volunteers to help make blankets. But when a local newspaper wrote about her efforts, it took off.

“I went out on a Sunday and when I came home I had something like 200 emails and I don’t even remember how many phone messages. Probably 50. That is what really kicked it off big time.”

She annexed her son’s old bedroom and turned it into a storing and processing area for Project Linus. Sometimes there are hundreds of blankets stacked by size in her closet. Giacomoni sews Project Linus labels onto each blanket and makes sure it is in good shape for the child who will soon cherish it.

One of her biggest challenges lately is not getting volunteers, but getting the blankets to kids who need them.

“Part of the problem is finding the person you need to have contact with. When you do find a contact, they get transferred or quit and you have to start from square one,” she said.

Sometimes, when she reads a sad story in the newspaper about children suffering a hurt or trauma, she will find a way to offer a little TLC with blankets. In one such instance, a child was killed in an accident in the Sonoma Valley. Giacomini arranged to bring blankets to all of the children in his class.

“We laid the blankets out and let the kids pick which one they wanted. The principal was in tears,” she said.

Giacomini goes about her work much like Santa Claus, delivering with love but with little personal contact. She delivers most of the blankets in large blue bags to adults working for organizations. But she does have some heart-tugging letters, keepsake books and pictures created by the children who received blankets to cuddle, just like her own son so many years ago.

“It doesn’t matter the size. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfectly made,” she said. “A kid doesn’t care. It’s comforting.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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