Urbana mission to help African children growing

URBANA — An Urbana-based mission to knit and crochet squares to turn into blankets for needy South African children continues to grow.

The SNUGGLES project now has knitters and crocheters making 6-inch squares for the blankets not only locally but across the U.S. and in Canada, and nearly 26,000 squares have been made, the sponsors say.

Project founder Jennifer Millay of Bloomington and her sister/helper Dana Pratt of DeLand hope the squares keep right on coming.

"There is a bottomless need," Pratt said.

To help fill it, two stitch-a-thons are planned for 3 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 20 at the project's base — the Bible Education Center at Lincoln Square, Urbana. Anyone wishing to come knit and crochet blanket squares is invited, Pratt and Millay said.

No knitting or crocheting skills are needed, because the two sisters say they'll teach anyone who wants to learn and contribute.

Yarn and needles will be supplied, but knitters and crocheters are also welcome to bring their own supplies if they wish, Millay and Pratt said.

All the hand-made squares are stuffed into suitcases and sent to poverty-stricken townships of Johannesburg, where women running child care centers assemble them into blankets for needy children, the sisters said.

Millay and Pratt and Pratt's husband, Ray, made the first of their two trips to South Africa three years ago through a church foundation-sponsored trip and helped make improvements to crude child care centers lacking the most basic amenities, they said.

All three are involved in the Bible Education Center, where Ray Pratt is the director and his wife and Millay are volunteers.

Millay said the SNUGGLES — Supporting Needs of the Underprivileged through Generous Gifts of Love in Every Stitch — project was launched in response to the plight of children sleeping on cold dirt floors at child care centers in Johannesburg.

Sending squares instead of finished blankets allows for stuffing suitcases fuller and gives the women receiving them a part in making the blankets, Pratt said.

Last September, SNUGGLES had shipped 10,000 blanket squares, and as of this month about 19,000 of the squares that have been made to date have been sent, Ray Pratt said.

Depending on the size of the blanket, 26,000 squares can make 650 to 1,000 blankets, he said.

With thousands of squares waiting to be shipped, the hold-up is largely expense.

"I've got 6,000 squares in my attic now. How do I get them there?" Ray Pratt says.

People donate suitcases to hold the blanket squares, and more suitcases are constantly needed because the suitcases don't come back. But it would cost nearly $1,000 to ship a suitcase to Johannesburg, Ray Pratt said.

The fee for air travelers carrying one of the suitcases with them is much cheaper, about $75, he said, so they're constantly on the lookout for people traveling to Johannesburg to carry a SNUGGLES suitcase.

"When people are going, we figure out some way to get a suitcase to them," he adds.

Millay and her sister say the involvement in this project has grown beyond the local area as they have spread the word through the Bible schools they attend in other states.

Squares are being made by the elderly in nursing homes and by home-bound seniors, and even high school students are getting in on the act this year, they said.

Katie Hutchison, an English as a second language teacher at Urbana High School, said she learned to crochet at one of the SNUGGLES stitch-a-thons and is having a group of her students in a structured study hall take on knitting and crocheting squares as a service project.

The two sisters are coming in and teaching the students how to knit and crochet, and the students will be making the squares throughout the year when they're finished their homework, Hutchison said.

More information about SNUGGLES: http://bit.ly/1aIHykj

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