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The Champaign County Farm Bureau auditorium was alive with the whirr of sewing machines on Friday, as members of the Mahomet unit of the Home and Community Education group banded together with Mahomet 4-H'ers to create unique blankets for local children with autism.
At tables around the perimeter of the room, volunteers leaned over sewing machines, feeding lengths of cotton under the presser foot with the tips of their fingers. Elsewhere, women measured and cut colorful fabric and strips of Velcro, or pinned the layers together.
In between answering questions from volunteers, organizer Elizabeth Michael showed off the finished product. Each lap-sized blanket is made of cotton and divided into six "pockets" with a Velcro closure along two edges. A folded twin-size sheet is placed in each pocket to add weight, and the finished product is about 24 pounds.
HCE members meet several times a year to work on the blankets.
"We found out there's quite a need" for weighted blankets, Michael said, noting that this was the first time that local 4-H'ers have gotten involved with the project.
Linda Tortorelli, coordinator of The Autism Project at the University of Illinois, said that weighted blankets can benefit kids who have trouble with sensory processing, helping them fall asleep quicker and reducing restlessness.
"We see some children who like that deep pressure become calmer and more focused," she said.
HCE donates the finished blankets to The Autism Project and the Champaign-Urbana Autism Network, which give them away in drawings. They also set up a table at the Autism Walk event in the spring.
Tortorelli said that The Autism Project raffles off the donated blankets several times a year, and that they're "super-popular." They're starting to affix labels to the blankets in order to get more organized feedback from users.
But Michael and her fellow volunteers have already gotten positive feedback about how the blankets have helped children. One grandmother reported that her grandson—for whom bedtime was previously an hours-long struggle—now falls asleep in ten minutes under his new blanket.
Tortorelli said that the blankets are also useful in the classroom. Spread across the knees, they encourage students to remain calm and seated.
Michael works with the Central Illinois chapter of Project Linus, an organization that makes blankets for children who are ill, have suffered trauma or are otherwise in need of loving care.
She said that the group welcomes donations of flat bed sheets to use in the blankets. Any size will work (they cut down full-size sheets to fit) and gently used sheets are fine. Donations can be dropped off at the University of Illinois Extension office on Country Fair Drive in Champaign.
"We'll use any flat sheet," Michael said, adding that donors or potential volunteers could contact her at (217) 586-4256.
The group also accepts donations of materials: cotton fabric sized 36 by 42-45 inches in "kid-friendly" prints or solids, as well as sew-on Velcro fastening.
Michael said that each workday usually produces six to eight finished blankets. She estimated that the group has made over 30 of the blankets over the past several years.
"We're really grateful in the autism community for those weighted blankets," Tortorelli said.
And local volunteers are glad to use their skills to bring comfort to others.
"We'll do anything we can to help the children," Michael said.