A mountain of fleece tie blankets fills the living room of the Gornick family’s home in Missoula’s South Hills.
Patterns of Mickey Mouse, soccer balls and sailboats jump out from the rainbow-colored pile waiting to be boxed and given out to 600-some homeless and at-risk children in the Missoula County Public Schools district.
Outside, the fall air is brisk and the leaves are falling, making the unusual mound all the more welcoming.
“Who doesn’t love blankets?” said Danielle Gornick, a Sentinel High School senior, who with her friend, Elly Jones, was making more of the cozy items on Sunday.
It takes about 20 minutes to make the blankets, which require two pieces of fleece measuring two yards by two yards, a scissors to cut the edges with fringe, and the patience to tie the fringe to finish off the the fuzzy two-sided blankets.
Officially called “Sleep Tight Missoula,” the two seniors have now made more than 100 blankets, and have their blanket-making system dialed to an efficient rhythm.
“We wanted to do a volunteer project before we both went of to college,”Gornick explained. “We couldn’t figure out what group to target but then we learned about the McKinney tutor program that works with Missoula’s homeless and at-risk children, and we learned that program had funding cuts so we wanted to help.
“We wanted to do something that was necessary and comforting to receive and we came up with blankets,” she said. “And there is definitely a need. We learned that in the 2010-2011 school year, Missoula had 579 homeless and at-risk middle school and elementary school children, and this year, there is expected to be another 150 children.”
Given those numbers, the two blanket makers are committed to making at least 600 blankets by Christmas to distribute through WORD, which operates the McKinney tutor program.
It takes about $25 in materials to make each blanket; to reach their goal of 600 blankets will require $15,000 in donations– or material donations, or tie-blanket donations, Jones said.
To that end, the duo has created a Facebook site and opened a bank account at First Interstate Bank, both under the name Sleep Tight Missoula.
So far, the project has been made possible by donations from friends, family members and local fabric shops that have donated materials or sold materials to the project at deep discounts.
A few times, while the two teenagers were shopping for materials, strangers who have overheard them explaining the project to fabric store employees have followed them to the cash register to pay for their day’s purchases.
“It’s been a really great experience so far,” Gornick said. “But we are really hoping to get a large corporate sponsor.”
The entire concept came out of a discussion Gornick and Jones had in the weeks before school started this fall.
Gornick travelled to Haiti during her sophomore year at Sentinel and was so moved by that experience that she wanted to do something to again help the impoverished.
Jones, who wants to pursue a career in dentistry, shared the same objective.
“My view, my perspective changed a lot when I got back from Haiti,” Gornick explained. “And to learn that people in my own country are struggling is hard, and something I want to do something about.”
“It’s hard to grasp the idea that there are so many kids in our own community who are struggling,” Jones said. “We are so lucky because we’ve never known not having a home or a roof over our heads.”
The two seniors encourage anyone who is interested in the project to contact them or make a donation.
They’ll take materials, too.
However the donations roll in, they’ll get a huge boost from Gornick’s extended family.
Come Thanksgiving at her great Aunt’s Melrose ranch, the family of 70-some relatives have all been told to make and bring two blankets to the holiday gathering, and expect to help make more on that day.
Family donations aside, the blanket makers are confident their project will be successful.
“I have so much faith in this because we have such a caring community in Missoula,” Gornick said. “I didn’t doubt people in this community would mind helping the number of needy kids that live here.”
When the project partners explain that nearly 720 children in Missoula are homeless or live in families that live at or below the poverty level and are at risk of losing their homes, there’s usually a stunned response.
“It’s really hard for a lot of our peers to wrap their minds around,” Gornick said. “But then it does sink in.”
Fellow students are now asking to donate time to help make the blankets, some are also donating materials.
“Sentinel students are not required to do senior projects,” Jones said. “Not until next year will that change, but some juniors are already asking us if they can take over the project and continue it next year.
“That would be neat to see if what we started continued.”