Fleece fabric in patches of every color and pattern imaginable was spread out across the entire width of the school gym during Monday morning assemblies at All Saints Academy in St. Cloud in early December.
Using rulers, scissors, tape and their own two hands, about 190 students carefully measured, cut and tied colorful cozy hats out of the material.
The students are making the world a warmer place this winter, especially right here in central Minnesota. For their Advent service project, the students handmade hats for those most in need, and they also collected new hats and mittens through an organization called Hats & Mittens, located in Minnetonka, Minnesota. The 501c3 was founded by Rebecca Jorgenson Sundquist.
Sixth-grader Noah Henderson first learned about Hats & Mittens when Dr. Ken Holmen, president and CEO of CentraCare Health, visited the school as part of “I Love to Read” month in February. Holmen read a book by Minnesota author Nancy Carlson titled, “Warmer with Hats and Mittens,” commissioned by Thrivent Financial with proceeds going to Hats & Mittens.
“Rebecca was driving in the [Twin Cities] and saw a woman with her children, and they didn’t have anything warm to wear,” Henderson explained. “So she took off her fleece and gave it to the mother, and that’s when she realized there are a lot of people who don’t have warm things to wear in the community.”
Sundquist started the organization Hats & Mittens and now collects them to give to people in need.
That was the beginning of the partnership between Hats & Mittens and All Saints Academy. At the beginning of December, Holmen’s wife, Linda, along with Carlson, visited the school to kick off the Advent project.
Paula Leider, principal of ASA, said the project was born out of the “Catholic social teaching mindset” at the school.
“One of the things we really do well here and that is incredibly important to our values — which are ‘share generously, serve willingly, care deeply and speak kindly’ — is to have our students live that out through service to others,” Leider said.
“When we learned that Hats & Mittens wanted to expand their range to the St. Cloud area, it was a perfect symbiotic partnership because we want to be able to make a difference in our community right here and right now by serving and sharing.”
About 20 collection bins were placed in schools and businesses throughout the St. Cloud area to collect hats and mittens. Additionally, the student body gathered on Monday mornings during Advent to make their own fleece hats for the organization.
Parent Kathy Czeck, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Waite Park, said it has been amazing to see students working together on the hats and witness firsthand the impact it has had on her own family, including her sons Mason, who is in sixth grade, and Cullen, a second-grader.
“They took money out of their allowance to buy mittens. We had a lot of fun doing that together,” Czeck said. “I hope that this project teaches them a little humility and that there are some people who need the basic necessities in life.”
Sixth-grade teacher Mary Cheryl Opatz emphasizes Catholic social teaching themes with her students, doing everything from serving lunch at local homeless shelters to working at the area food shelf and ringing bells for the Salvation Army.
“I hope they are learning the impact one person can make when they follow the nudging of the Holy Spirit to reach out and take action,” Opatz said. “In religion class, when we read Matthew 25: 34-40, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me …,’ the kids immediately made the connection. … This is the true spirit of the season.”
For sixth-grader Victoria Statz, making the hats had a deeper meaning.
“I liked it a lot. We heard a story of how it got started and it was pretty cool so I was pretty excited to start it,” Statz said. “My cousin in Venezuela, their family is having a hard time, and I just want to help any way I can here if I can’t help there.”
Kendall Heydman, also a sixth-grader, said it is important to spread the warmth to people nearby as well as far away. “We want people everywhere to have warm clothes so they don’t get sick,” she said.
“We are all God’s creation and we are all here for a reason,” Noah Henderson added.
“It shows people that they matter,” said classmate Mirtnesh O’Neal.
The project allows many of the students to see the project from start to finish. The sixth-grade class will travel to the Hats & Mittens warehouse in Minnetonka to see how they are sorted and distributed. Later in December, they will sort and distribute the hats and mittens they have collected and deliver them to local organizations and schools.
“Having our students work collaboratively together on projects like this enables them to really be able to see the good they can do out in the world,” Leider said.
“As I told them, Rebecca Sundquist was one person who saw one need and she made a huge difference in the community. That’s what we hope to teach our students — that they can change the world by just identifying one need, being passionate about it and finding a way to become an agent of change around that need.”