Shirley King is in the business of mass-producing warmth and security.
From her three-bedroom Elk Grove home, King, 83, has created and distributed thousands of handmade blankets to individuals and organizations helping children faced with poverty, illness and natural disaster.
“My daughter told me, ‘When you wrap a child in a warm blanket, it’s like giving them a big hug,’ ” King said – and with that, she decided to name her operation Gramma’s Hugs International.
“And I’m Gramma,” she said with a smile – the kind only a loving grandmother is capable of giving.
King has traveled across 84 countries and six continents, obtained a degree from the University of the Pacific while raising a family, enjoyed teaching high school and college students, performed as a classical pianist aboard a cruise ship – and in 2003, at 70 years old, she sought her next conquest.
“A missionary from an orphanage in Kijabe, Kenya, came to my church and asked for some blankets for the children there,” King said. “Not being the sedentary type, I thought, ‘I’ll do it!’ So, I signed up and knitted around 400 afghans in six months.”
The following year, Gramma’s Hugs International was incorporated as a nonprofit organization and, with a small army of volunteers, has distributed more than 200,000 blankets worldwide.
Locally, the organization serves around 20 charities throughout Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, including River City Food Bank, Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California, Mustard Seed School and Ronald McDonald House.
Ronald McDonald House, which provides temporary housing for more than 600 hospitalized children and their families each year, has worked with Gramma’s Hugs for years to give each child who walks through its doors a personal blanket, said Stacey Hodge, Ronald McDonald House spokeswoman.
“The blankets make such an impact,” Hodges said. “They’re something the children can take to and from the hospital, and they provide such a sense of comfort despite these kids’ illnesses. It truly makes the difference for these kids.”
Without a self-sustaining funding model, Gramma’s Hugs functions with the aid of community donations – and occasionally King’s personal savings.
With three of Gramma’s Hugs four sewing machines on their last legs, King is unsure how she will meet the high demand for fleece blankets and other warm items this holiday season. The organization is asking Books of Dreams readers to help it buy three upgraded serger machines and enable King to continue spreading hugs around the world.
Her blankets have also reached orphaned children across dozens of countries, including India, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Guatemala. During times of natural disaster, Gramma’s Hugs makes special efforts to provide warmth and security to survivors. Such disasters have included Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Nepal’s massive earthquake in April.
Although King said she is unable to personally meet the individuals who receive her blankets, Gramma’s Hugs International regularly receives stockpiles of thank-you letters from children and their family members.
“Sometimes these blankets are these children’s most prized possessions,” King said, tears welling up in her eyes. “How precious these little things are to them – and how wonderful it is to supply it to them and to be able to give them what they consider such a luxury.”
All but one room in her home – better known by friends and family as Gramma’s Hugs Factory – has been transformed to facilitate the organization’s many facets of production.
Needed: Funding for three special sewing machines
Book of Dreams Wishes
Here’s a list of wishes published so far in the series:
Dream: Funds are sought to help pay for items for Melissa Oliver’s wedding. Oliver’s father, Danny, a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, was killed in the line of duty in October 2014.
Needed: Wedding dress, groom suit and cake
Dream: Next Move’s Family Shelter seeks funds to supply clothing to comfort homeless children.
Needed: Pajamas, socks and underwear
Dream: My Sister’s Café, a branch of the nonprofit My Sister’s House, needs work apparel for its workers.
Needed: New aprons and uniform T-shirts