When Sheila Ethier’s grandmother gave her a quilt as a girl, she couldn’t have known how that simple work of love would translate into solace for thousands of patients half a century later.
Sheila is founder of the Blankets of Love Foundation, an initiative now its 26th year that gives warmth to patients in mental health wards in Alberta and across the nation. With the help of quilters across Canada, the program provides these patients with a hand-made quilt.
“It’s the caregiver in me. I’m my happiest when I’m helping other people,” said the St. Albert registered nurse.
Ethier started Blankets of Love in 1996 after being discharged from the University of Alberta hospital. She had been in and out of the psychiatric ward for two years for depression, and recalls being cold and achy all the time.
Feeling lonely and isolated when she got home, she looked through her closet to find something warm. She came across a quilt her grandmother had made many years before.
“As soon as that blanket covered me, I felt this sense of warmth and love,” recalled Ethier. “It gave me a glimmer of hope, because when you’re that sick, you don’t remember ever feeling well.”
It was a life changing moment, and Ethier started Blankets of Love the next day.
With help from hundreds of volunteer quilters, Ethier collects blankets throughout the year and delivers them to psychiatric wards in Edmonton, Ponoka and Calgary.
Since its founding, Blankets of Love has gifted over 5,500 quilts. About 2,000 were donated through the pandemic, and this holiday season the goal is to donate some 500 quilts to patients.
Ethier was motivated to start a winter campaign after her eldest son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three years ago. She set a goal of 300 quilts to give to his fellow patients who were spending Christmas at the Alberta Hospital Edmonton. The response was overwhelming, with people contributing over 800 quilts.
Blankets offer a sense of hope and caring at a challenging time in patients’ lives, said Darren Crawford, program manager at Alberta Hospital Edmonton.
“There‘s gratitude as well as an appreciation for the creativity and effort that goes into the quilts,” he said. "Connections with community partners supports our goal of breaking down the stigma those dealing with addiction and mental health issues may face."
Ethier has faced many challenges herself: While she was a single parent attending nursing school, her two-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia, and faced three years of chemotherapy.
“In a short period of time Jason had five near death experiences. Our life was very stressful,” she recalled. “Both of my sons have chronic health challenges.”
Even with all that, Ethier was instrumental in starting Camp Beat It for families dealing with childhood cancer. It still runs at camp He Ho Ha, west of Edmonton. She has also written a book about her ordeals and triumphs, called Count It All Joy.
Meanwhile, Blankets of Love continues.
“A lot of quilters say making that quilt is their therapy,” said Ethier, adding blankets are a labour of love for quilters, and a boost to hospital staff and patients too. "Staff don't get many opportunities to uplift patients' lives in such a meaningful way. And these patients hardly get gifts. Usually someone in hospital gets cards and flowers, but nobody wants to visit anyone in the psychiatric ward. Because I remember being there."
Ethier says she still faces the challenge of depression, so Blankets of Love helps her move forward when she's unable to leave the house.
“During the pandemic, people thought the program was so important they got rid of their stash of quilts, and we did receive a lot,” she said. “I am optimistic we’ll reach our goal this winter too.”
To contribute a quilt or make a financial donation, visit Blankets of Love Foundation for Mental Health, blanketsoflove.ca.