Dr. Susan Katz found some hands-on ways to connect with students and the community: sewing, quilting and crocheting.
Katz, who still has a teddy bear with green gingham overalls she made at age 7, found herself drawn to Project Linus, a nonprofit group that provides handmade blankets and quilts for seriously ill children.
It all started with something she read, befitting an associate English professor whose first career was in media and advertising. Two years ago, Katz answered a newspaper columnist’s call for donated squares – quilted, knitted or crocheted – that could be made into blankets. Using some yarn leftover from making a baby blanket for a colleague, she crocheted a small peach square. A few months later, the paper asked to use it as an illustration for Project Linus updates.
“Since my little square was famous, I told myself, ‘I could go to Make a Blanket Day,’” Katz says.
Friend in tow, she joined dozens of others in an assembly line for Project Linus blankets and quilts. The following year, she went again, working on a team that pieced the tops for 15 to 20 quilts.
“All of a sudden, I was part of a group where people do something I do well that I can do on my own time – no meeting every second Tuesday – something that was helping somebody.”
Katz told local coordinator Susie Holmes she’d be willing to help with other projects, and a few weeks later, she got the call.
Could she “put a human face” on Project Linus for a seventh-grade class at Exploris Middle School? The magnet school students were making crib-sized quilts. Many had never sewn before and were taking a while to warm up to the project, which turned out to be a lot of work.
“At first, we had some questions about why we couldn’t just buy a blanket,” teacher Arielle Angle says.
Katz, whose grandson is a sixth grader, knew holding preteens’ attention with an hour on quilts wouldn’t be an easy assignment.
“I probably spent more time planning what to say to the middle school students than for any conference presentation I’ve given in the last 10 years,” she says.
Katz talked about where the quilts would end up – cuddling toddlers or wrapped around the shoulders of a teen in the hospital. She read thank you letters from people who had received a handmade blanket.
She asked the kids whether they knew younger children who had a favorite blanket or stuffed animals, eliciting a flood of stories.
Finally, she handed out markers and asked the class to write messages for hospitalized kids on fabric squares. “Every little thing is gonna be alright,” wrote Kayla. Someone else drew a sun peeking behind a cloud.
No one even noticed it was time to go until after the bell rang.
Katz promised to make a couple of larger quilts with the message squares while the students finished the crib-sized ones.
On a return visit May 1, she displayed the larger quilts and the kids showed her what they’d made in teams: 16 quilts in a rainbow of vibrant colors and vintage-look fabrics.
They piled the quilts into her arms, giggling when the stack grew so high it teetered.
“I think both the kids and Susan learned things and enjoyed themselves,” says Susie Holmes, local coordinator for Project Linus. “Not only does the receiving child benefit from getting a warm cuddly blanket, but their parent feels the love from the blanket maker, and the blanket maker gets to feel the joy of giving a simple gift from the heart.”
Katz gets the same kinds of warm responses from her college students when she posts something on Facebook about her latest sewing, crocheting or quilting project.
“They’ll write back to me: ‘Oh, I do that, too,’” Katz says. “Some of the undergrads will list crocheting and knitting as hobbies on a resume.”
As the English department’s internship coordinator and teacher for graduate classes in technical communication, Katz finds her career experiences also help her to connect with students. Before joining NC State 13 years ago, she worked for television stations in Albany, N.Y., Sacramento, Calif., and Norfolk, Va., as well as a small advertising agency.
“Students in the internship classes tell me, ‘You’ve done things I’m likely to do,’” she says. “As a teacher, when I talk to them about work, I have some credibility.”
A hands-on approach to finding a job also works for many of her students. Almost every semester, there’s a student who gets a job directly from an internship.
At semester’s end she learned that a small company had created a job for one of her NC State interns, a creative writer who became an office asset as an enthusiastic business letter and form expert – good news in one of the toughest markets ever for college graduates.
Once the semester was finished, Katz delivered the finished quilts to Project Linus. Some went to Wake Med and Rex hospitals. Depending on where the quilts are needed, they could go to hospitals, the Make a Wish Foundation or Hospice of Wake County, which hosts a grief group for kids who have lost a parent or sibling.
“It’s hard to find something kids this age can do to make an impact,” Angle says. “Making these quilts was something they could actually do that will have a direct impact. Out of all the projects we’ve done this year, this was the most empowering for the kids.”
Several of her students talked about making the quilts during a year-end portfolio conference at the magnet school, which emphasizes service learning.
Katz kept adding to the stack of quilts. After finishing the two large quilts with the children’s messages, she found an online template for a smaller quilt, which she wrapped up quickly.
She says making something provides a needed counterpoint to the mental and computer screen work she does on the job.
“If I haven’t made something with my hands in a while, I miss that sense of accomplishment,” she says. “If I ever start to feel down, I ask myself, ‘What have you made lately?’”