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Little Hats, Big Hearts, Caring Hands

February 2, 2019
At Benchmark Senior Living in Chelmsford, from left, lead aides Manju Jeena and Sharon Maguire, both of Chelmsford, and resident Kay McCall knit and crochet hats for newborn babies for the American Heart Association's Little Hats Big Hearts program in conjunction with American Heart Month. Below, Elsie Fagner, left, and Jeena, share a smile as they work. See video at lowellsun.com. SUN photos/Julia Malakie Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

CHELMSFORD -- Wrinkled fingers deftly wound bright red yarn around knitting and crochet needles, while others, their dexterity hampered by arthritis, used looms.

Some of the senior ladies in the weekly knitting group at Benchmark Senior Living at Chelmsford Crossings had knit throughout their lives. Others had put down the craft or forgot how, and took it back up after entering the assisted living facility. Their work often goes to area organizations that help the needy, like House of Hope in Lowell.

On Wednesday afternoon, they were deep in concentration on their latest project: red hats for newborn babies, part of the American Heart Association’s “Little Hats Big Hearts” campaign. Each year, the AHA, in connection with the Children’s Heart Foundation, raises awareness of congenital heart defects during American Heart Month in February.

This year, residents, staff and volunteers at 16 Benchmark facilities in Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut are participating for the first time. Other local facilities participating include Leominster Crossings and Woburn.

“It’s nice to be able to take some of your time to help the needy, or the newborns,” said Chelmsford Crossings resident Elsie Fagner, originally of Billerica. “It saves the parents the money to do that, and gives you something to do in your own spare time. It makes you happy to see when it’s all finished, and you start all over again.”

The campaign, started in Chicago in 2014, has spread across the country to more than 40 states. So far in Massachusetts, more than 10,000 newborns have received hats. Another 2,500 hats are expected to be distributed to babies born in February at nine participating hospitals across the state, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, MetroWest Medical Center, Milford Regional Medical Center, Norwood Hospital, Saint Vincent Hospital, Tufts Medical Center, UMass Memorial Medical Center and Winchester Hospital.

A congenital heart defect, according to the AHA, is a structural problem present at birth. It can occur as the result of a mishap during heart development soon after conception. Such defects can have a disruptive effect on a person’s circulatory system, and increase risk of developing certain medical conditions.

Chelmsford Crossings Programming Director Jim Kingsbury said knitting has long been a staple activity at the facility. He said it helps the residents by providing socialization, garnering friendships, improving hand-eye coordination and dexterity, and keeping the brain sharp by maintaining or learning new skills.

“It’s a great thing,” Kingsbury said. “It gives them a sense of purpose and a connection with the community, and it allows them to showcase some of their talents.”

Carol-Ann Allen, of Groton, who works as a hairstylist for Benchmark clients and oversees the knitting group as a volunteer, said it keeps them engaged.

“It’s really important for them to socialize. Without something like this, they would probably sit in their room and watch TV or take a nap,” she said. “We talk about things from the past. We talk about life. They love it. We laugh, and have a good time.”

Resident Dorothy Benoit, originally of Lowell, said she feels like she’s doing something worthwhile when she knits or crochets for someone else. Previously a prolific afghan knitter, she said she likes working with her hands and she feels wonderful when she finishes a piece.

Thelma Francis, of Chelmsford, said she made a lot of sweaters and other knit items before she lost her eyesight. As tough as it is, she still tries, because she loves to knit.

“It’s very satisfying,” said Kay McCall, originally of Lowell. “You feel like you’re helping somebody.”

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.

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