During her freshman year of high school in 2010, Melissa Engel’s (17C, 23G) life took a turn when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. During her stay at the hospital, Engel received a purple fleece blanket from a nonprofit organization called Project Linus. Now, nine years later with the blanket still on her bed, Engel hosts Project Linus blanket-making events for volunteers — or “blanketeers” — to give back to those who face similar hurdles.
Project Linus, named after the blanket-dependent Charlie Brown character, aims to make blankets for children around the country who have endured severe trauma or have been diagnosed with an altering illness by holding blanket-making events and distributing blankets to hospitals. The organization, which has roughly 300 national chapters, also accepts any blankets not made at one of their events and hosts an annual “Make a Blanket Day” every third Saturday of February.
Engel said her blanket made an unforgettable impact on her and is the reason she makes blankets today.
“I decided that I wanted to make blankets for other kids because it’s very hard to get this life-changing diagnosis,” Engel said. “[Being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes] was completely unexpected. The blanket was a really nice gift, definitely the highlight of my hospital stay.”
Engel graduated from Emory in 2017 with a degree in psychology. After earning a master’s degree in behavioral psychology from the University of Minnesota, Engel has now returned to the Emory Laney Graduate School to attain a PhD in clinical psychology. Her research will examine the relationship between childhood chronic illness and mental health issues.
It will also focus on resilience among children with chronic illnesses, and she hopes to find ways to provide emotional relief for children with chronic illnesses on a broader scale. Her interest in these areas stemmed from her own experiences with Type 1 diabetes and a plethora of food allergies.
Engel’s advisor and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology Dr. Patricia Brennan noted the importance of Engel’s research in tying together developmental psychopathology with the many factors that contribute to a child’s well-being.
“I think [Engel’s] a really great role model for kids who have chronic illnesses,” Brennan said. “I think they might be worried about their future and what they’re capable of, but seeing someone who has gone through it and is capable is probably going to be very motivating and inspiring.”
While an Emory undergraduate, Engel volunteered at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospital where she met with children facing similar diagnoses and stressful situations as the ones she faced when she was their age. Engel participated in a program called Art Cart at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where she made art projects with patients once a week for three years and also volunteered at summer camps for children with chronic illnesses and severe food allergies. She was also the president of Emory’s chapter of Psi Chi, the international honor society in psychology, and an Emory IDEAS fellow in 2016. Eventually, Engel hopes to work as a pediatric psychologist conducting research and clinical work with children diagnosed with chronic illnesses.
Engel held her first blanket-making event in her hometown of Chicago at her local congregation in 2010. She contacted her local Project Linus chapter and organized the event, including space, materials and participants, all by herself at 14 years old while still in her hospital bed. By the end of the event, they had produced close to 50 blankets.
Over the next nine years, Engel would hold an annual event, amassing at least 50 people each year and making about 450 blankets in total.
“I really like that people that I know from all walks of life support [the project],” Engel said. “I also like when people work on blankets who don’t know each other and that are just there and socializing while doing this shared good activity.”
Engel’s childhood friend Maddie Pike (19C) attended one of Engel’s Project Linus events two years ago in Chicago and noted the diversity among the attendees and the general sense of community.
“The whole community showed up to help [Engel] out,” Pike said. “People from the high school, people from the temple, family and friends. We all just hung out, made blankets, baked cookies — it was really fun.”
Although Engel does not get to physically distribute to patients the blankets made at her events, her efforts do not go unnoticed. A quarterly newsletter is sent out by her Project Linus chapter and features sentiments from children and families who have received blankets. These blankets are not necessarily made by Engel, but still show her that her hard work has paid off.
“It’s just nice to see that we’ve been able to impact so many people,” Engel said. “It’s interesting to see the wide range of cases of people who receive the blankets and how it impacts the whole family.”
Engel will host her 10th event as a part of the 2019 Emory Cares Day, an annual initiative that promotes nationwide community service on behalf of the Emory community. Project Linus will meet on Nov. 7 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Psychology and Interdisciplinary Sciences Building lobby. Engel ensured that volunteers do not need prior experience and that people need only fleece and scissors.
“I see my overarching goal as improving the lives of children with chronic illnesses, and I aim to align nearly all of my personal and professional projects with this goal in mind,” Engel said. “I just hope that I can make a lot of blankets and that we can make lots of children smile and make their painful experiences less painful.”