ANTIOCH – To April Soulak Andrews, every blanket is a hug.
Andrews founded The Penny’s Purpose in 2019 expecting to collect 50 to 100 blankets to give to area nonprofit organizations, homeless and animal shelters, hospice and senior care centers and those struggling with loss. She ended up with about 600 homemade, new and gently used blankets that year, and the donations kept coming.
“Every year, it’s growing bigger and bigger, and we’re OK with that,” said Andrews of Antioch, who founded The Penny’s Purpose in honor of her late mother, Penny Soulak.
The organization goes by the mission, “Learn to give, even when blessed with less.”
Andrews’ mother loved both giving back and blankets. After she died, Andrews thought of the idea for The Penny’s Purpose when her husband handed her one of her mother’s blankets for warmth.
“We always try to figure out, ‘What would Penny do? What would Penny say?’ My mom delights in giving,” Andrews said. “My mom always didn’t have a lot of stuff. She struggled, but she always found a way to give back. I know she would love all of this.”
The Penny’s Purpose hosts a blanket drive every holiday season and collects blankets year-round at donation bins throughout the area and Wisconsin, as well as at its headquarters at 965 Main St. in Antioch. The organization moved into the space when it outgrew a home-based operation.
Hosting a Dec. 17 event offering photos with Santa in exchange for blanket donations, the organization expected to far exceed last year’s donations when more than 2,000 blankets were collected.
“The generosity around this time of year is just amazing,” Andrews said.
Along with donations to groups, The Penny’s Purpose invites people to fill out a form on its website at thepennyspurpose.org as part of a blanket gifting program. Homemade blankets, such as no-sew fleece and crochet blankets, are given to those facing medical, emotional or mental health crisis or “someone just going through a challenging time who needs a little pick-me-up,” Andrews said.
She tries to pair themed blankets with interests. For instance, if the person is a Cubs fan, a Cubs blanket or baseball-themed blanket is given.
Last year, about 175 blankets were gifted out, Andrews said.
“I always say they’re blankets, but they’re really not blankets. They’re hugs,” she said. “They’re providing someone with warmth, and it’s a hug from my mom. It’s a hug from everyone at Penny’s Purpose.”
Among the numerous groups the organization partners with, Bannockburn-based Willow House uses the blankets to help provide grief support to youth, families, schools and other communities grieving the death of a parent, sibling or child. Willow House provides free services and space for people to grieve in companionship with others.
Andrews not only has donated blankets through The Penny’s Purpose for the past year and a half, she also has volunteered for Willow House. She sought out the group after reading about it in a newspaper.
“She truly gets it,” said David Scheffler, executive director of Willow House.
Scheffler first became involved with Willow House after the death of his daughter in 2002. He soon became a volunteer and took on the role of executive director in 2020.
This past year, the organization worked with schools and the community after the Independence Day parade shooting in Highland Park, as well as individuals and families. Given to all who need support, the blankets provide a bit of warmth beyond the support groups, educational resources and guidance provided by Willow House, Scheffler said.
“For children who have lost their parents and others, they’re looking for some kind of security or comfort, so it’s a beautiful partnership,” he said.
The Penny’s Purpose also has donated to the ELCA Outreach Center, an outreach of eight Evangelical Lutheran Congregations of America Churches in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The center offers a wide range of services to help families and individuals meet everyday needs, such as clothing and personal care items, prescription assistance, access to computers, resume building and job search assistance, youth programming and more.
“Being a nonprofit, we can’t go out and buy stuff. We depend on generous people to donate,” said Karl Erickson, executive director for ELCA Outreach Center. “[The Penny’s Purpose] is by far our largest donor of blankets. … We’re able to provide people with warm blankets that they need this time of year.”
Not only people benefit from The Penny’s Purpose. Inspired by her mother’s love of animals, Andrews has taken on animal causes, working with groups such as Canines 4 Comfort (canines4comfort.org.)
With its training based in Grayslake, Canines 4 Comfort trains service dogs for individuals experiencing PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental health diagnoses.
Donated used blankets provide a designated place for dogs in training, said Lisa Wernli, executive director and co-founder of the organization.
“As they go through their training, one of the commands they’re taught is place,” she said. “The blanket they’re donated is what’s used as their place in the training.”
The blankets remain with the dogs when they graduate so they have something they’re familiar with when they move into the home of their handlers. Separate blankets also are given to the handlers. Many of them are veterans and children.
“All of these groups definitely appreciate the warmth and snuggle of a blanket,” Wernli said.
Source: The Daily Chronicle