Good Life

It started with 1 hat in State College. Hundreds of beanies have now been given to sick kids

Organization makes beanies to bring joy to chronically ill

Founder Melissa Wilson talks about the Brave Beanie Project which hopes to bring joy to children, parents and doctors by crocheting fun beanies for those with chronic illnesses.
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Founder Melissa Wilson talks about the Brave Beanie Project which hopes to bring joy to children, parents and doctors by crocheting fun beanies for those with chronic illnesses.

Last year, Melissa Wilson stumbled on a YouTube video on how to make a dinosaur beanie. The State College woman decided to make the hat for her 4-year-old son Emmett, who has severe hemophilia B.

The beanie immediately had a positive impact in Emmett’s life, she said. As he walked down the hallways at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Emmett received a lot of attention and compliments for his prehistoric beanie, which brightened hospital visits and lifted Emmett’s spirits.

As Wilson witnessed the positivity the beanie brought to her son’s life, she said making a single beanie became something “much bigger.”

“I kind of had this little daydream where I thought it would be really fun to turn this into a major thing, like Jared Box has become,” Wilson said.

In October 2018, she founded the Brave Beanie Project to distribute character beanies to children with chronic illnesses.

What began with a YouTube tutorial and green dinosaur beanie has grown into a project that has distributed over 200 beanies.

As kids with beanies sit in the doctor’s office, they are no longer themselves — instead, the beanie transforms them into their favorite characters — from a bearded pirate or Iron Man to Cinderella or Dory from “Finding Nemo.”

Melissa Wilson shows how she could pull the hair on a beanie into a ponytail on June 3. Wilson said the beanie will become Cinderella, with long hair and a blue headband. Abby Drey

“(The beanie) transforms their world for even just a few minutes,” Wilson said. “For some of them, they’re just so, so happy. In some cases, it’s children with cancer, so they’re actually missing their hair, and they get their hair back. It’s a really cool thing to experience.”

She said the beanies can also change the doctors’ and nurses’ perspectives, as they will begin visits by telling a child her hat is “really cool” rather than getting down to business right away.

The Brave Beanie Project currently donates beanies to three hospitals — the Hershey Medical Center, Geisinger Medical Center in Danville and Geisinger Gray’s Woods. However, the project has mailed out beanies to children across the country.

Parents who want a beanie for their child can nominate them on the project’s Facebook page.

As the Brave Beanie Project continues to grow, Wilson said she never expected it to become big so quickly.

The project has registered as a nonprofit and has applied for 501(c)(3) status. Each beanie is made by Wilson or another volunteer, most of whom live in the State College area.

Volunteers have done a variety of tasks based on their knitting and crocheting abilities. While some help make the beanies themselves, others contribute by putting hair on the beanies or taking the beanies to the hospitals.

“People are so willing to donate to help these kids,” Wilson said. “I think it’s something that everybody is affected by — you either know a child with a chronic illness or you know someone that knows a child with a chronic illness.”

Karen Smitka works on adding hair to a beanie with a Rapunzel theme on June 3. The Brave Beanie Project makes beanies for children in the hospitals, from princesses and superheroes to animals and cartoon characters. Abby Drey

Karen Smitka originally heard about the Brave Beanie Project through a Facebook post Wilson made in October. Smitka had no experience knitting or crocheting, and offered to donate yarn.

Soon, she began helping to put hair on the princess beanies. Now, Smitka knows how to do the entire process herself.

She said she never would have expected to be able to make a beanie on her own, and loves the opportunity the project gives her to help children with chronic illnesses.

“The fact that you have the opportunity to bring a smile to a child’s face who might not have one at that moment is really rewarding,” Smitka said. “It also makes your heart really happy to be able to help someone else, even if it’s just making a hat.”

Nicole Johndrow Wilson also volunteers with the project. Johndrow Wilson, who met Wilson and found out about the project through their daughters’ ballet class, helps put hair on the beanies.

“It’s such an incredible idea. It’s not only empowering for the kids in treatment, but it’s also practical, which is sort of unique,” she said. “It makes the kids feel great, but it also physically keeps them warm.”

A Jasmine from “Aladdin” beanie was made by volunteers with the Brave Beanie Project. Abby Drey

After a beanie is completed, Johndrow Wilson said the volunteers can write a note to the child who receives the beanie. She said she often finds herself writing poems to the child, and cries at the thought of how meaningful receiving the beanie must be for the child and their parents.

Looking to the future, Wilson said the project is looking for more volunteers to help crochet and knit the beanies. She hopes the Brave Beanie Project continues to grow so it can impact children on a national level.

“I hope that we’re able to help kids from all over the country. I want our name to get out there so that we can help more children,” Wilson said. “That’s all that it’s about at the end of the day.”