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Community support blankets family in need

From left, Kerri Gualtieri, Gwen Stewart, Dana Pennanen with her son Will Pennanen, and Kelly Martz, along with Jessica Sorensen, not pictured, organized a blanket project in Will's honor. Photo by Phil Custodio (click for larger version)
June 30, 2010 - With their friend Dana Pennanen in the hospital with a sick child, Clarkston teachers Kerri Gualtieri, Kelly Martz, Jessica Sorensen, and Gwen Stewart wanted to help.

"We talked to each other on our cell phones all night," Gualtieri said. "Everybody wanted to do something, but no one knew what they could do. The Pennanens are great people, wonderful people."

Their idea: make fleece blankets for children's hospitals.

"Making blankets is so therapeutic," Martz said. "We're proud to be able to help someone."

"It's a great family activity," Stewart said.

Three-year-old Will Pennanen had trouble walking and his back hurt, May 15, and his parents Dana and Paul Pennanen, of Oxford, took him to Children's Hospital of Michigan.

He was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.

The brightly-colored fleece blankets feature a variety of cartoon and fairy tale characters. Young patients choose one to snuggle with.

"It's the best idea," Dana said.

"Patients in chemotherapy get cold the blankets are super warm," Stewart said. "Everyone loves the blankets."

"They're needed more in summer, when the air conditioning is turned up," Gualtieri said.

Will picked one right away, Dana said.

"When his eyes fell on a Toy Story blanket, he lit up," she said. "He loves Buzz Lightyear."

Will's brother Jack, 5, picked a Spiderman blanket.

During the project, local churches donated fabric, and students, teachers, and volunteers throughout the district made blankets before and after school, many including cards and notes for Will.

"We pulled this off in the last few weeks of school," Gualtieri said.

"I thank everybody, teachers, parents, people in the community," Dana said. "It shows they care about Will."

The project was inspired by Independence Elementary's annual Servicing Our Community Kid Style project, which includes making fleece blankets.

"All of us started at Independence Elementary as teachers," Gualtieri said.

Each taking 30-45 minutes to make, they made more than 200 blankets.

"It was overwhelming. We expected about 20 blankets," Dana said. "It's very cool."

So far, they donated 161 blankets to Children's Hospital and 18 to Just for Kids of Ann Arbor. Another donation is set for McLaren and Swan for Life in Independence Township.

Staff members at Children's Hospital were grateful for the donation.

"We had wagons filled with blankets. Our arms were filled with blankets," Gualtieri said.

"They were overwhelmed, they had never seen a donation that big," Dana said.

"A volunteer was blown away he took our picture using his cell phone," Stewart said.

The blankets filled a conference room, Dana said.

"They were in awe," she said.

Will told his mother, "other kids get to cuddle with a blanket like I did, and that's good."

Blanket donations were still coming in on the last day of school.

"It was a great end to the school year," Dana said.

Students at Clarkston Elementary, where Dana is principal, made a banner and Livestrong T-shirts for Will.

"This went further than anyone expected it spread like wildfire," Gualtieri said. "This is what Clarkston is, why we feel so blessed to be part of this community."

"We got so much done everyone went out of their way to help," Dana said. "Kerri is an amazing woman. She has one of the biggest heart in all of Clarkston."

"I'm honored to be a part of all of this," Martz said. "It's amazing, how many helped out. We're like a close knit family."

He is about a month into three years of chemotherapy. In the first phase of treatment, the cancer is in remission.

"It's still intense he will have chemo over the next 2 -3 years," Dana said. "We're so blessed to get through the first phase. We're lucky to have the support we have here. It gives us motivation, that we can do this."

They plan to continue helping all cancer patients. At Independence Township's Festival of Fun, July 3 at Clintonwood Park, they'll have a bake sale and dunk tank, with teachers, administrators, and others volunteering as targets. Proceeds will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

They will also walk with the Will Power team at this year's Light the Night Walk, Sept. 24 in Detroit.

Wendi graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint with a degree in communications. She wrote for the Michigan Times college paper and Grand Blanc View before joining The Clarkston News in October 2007.
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