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updated: 11/27/2012 11:26 AM

Happy Caps helps hospital patients think good thoughts

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  • Happy Caps founder Ellen Hart, center, began recruiting this team of volunteers and others for her new organization earlier this year. The group knits caps for cancer patients and makes journals for them and behavioral health patients, too.

       Happy Caps founder Ellen Hart, center, began recruiting this team of volunteers and others for her new organization earlier this year. The group knits caps for cancer patients and makes journals for them and behavioral health patients, too.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 

When Ellen Hart of Wood Dale sat with her sister during her chemotherapy treatments years ago, she said their time together was not sad.

In fact, it was quite the opposite.

"We would laugh and laugh and laugh," Hart said. "And when we were quiet I'd sit there and think 'What if she were only thinking happy thoughts?'"

With that, two ideas grew in Hart's mind. The first, a wish to knit hats for chemo patients, since her sister's bald head was always cold. The second was to create journals for them.

"I had read that journaling was such an important part of healing in so many areas of medicine, so I just wondered if there was a way I could put journals and caps together," Hart said.

She sat on the idea for three years, until she turned 55 this May. With that milestone birthday came some motivation.

"I sat back, looked at my life and thought 'I've done a lot of really cool things and made a mark, but I'd like to make a bigger mark doing more for other people,'" she said.

By July, Happy Caps was born. With the theme, "Put on your happy cap and think happy thoughts," a team of volunteers began creating handmade journals out of paper bags and recycled ribbon, as well as knitting caps.

But Hart insists the real credit goes to the volunteers who immediately stepped up.

They include her friend, Wood Dale police Sgt. Robert DelCarlo, who secured a meeting space for the group at city hall, found a paper cutter the group could borrow and convinced friends at Action Bags in Bensenville to donate 2,000 paper bags.

Meanwhile, Hart put out emails seeking volunteers, spread the word at the Wood Dale VFW where she calls bingo regularly, and "suddenly, people just started coming."

A core of about 15 people currently works with occasional volunteers. Terri Wood, spokeswoman for Fenton High School, also created an after-school group for students who wanted to help.

So far they've knitted roughly 100 caps. They've also assembled about 50 journals that were donated to Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates. The journals start with a prompt like "The funniest thing I ever did with my best friend was …" to get the writer inspired.

Cliff Saper, clinical psychologist and executive director of outpatient services at the hospital, said the journals are being used in the Child Partial Hospital Program.

"They love it," he said. "They see it as a sort of surprise, kind of like kids who loved their Trapper Keeper on the first day of school."

Saper said he would like to continue the partnership not only for the patients' sake, but to create awareness.

"I think it's really worthwhile, because there is such a stigma about mental health," he said. "Everybody has a relative or friend who deals with crises or stressors and this helps people see there is nothing wrong with getting help."

To continue the partnership, and to expand to cancer patients, more volunteers will be essential, since the group must create 100 more journals to accompany the 100 caps they've already knitted.

"I could not be doing this myself, no way, no how," Hart said. "I look at this as a community effort. Without them, there is no way this could actually be happening.

"And with this happening, it just makes my heart go crazy."

To volunteer, email Hart at elnhart@comcast.net with "Happy Caps" in the subject line. Or email her to donate scrapbook paper, stickers, scissors, craft store gift cards, yarn, -inch wide or smaller ribbon, fancy edge scrapbook scissors, paper cutters and knitting looms such as Knifty Knitters. Skeins of yarn and bolts of ribbon do not need to be full, just clean and usable.

Or, drop into a group meeting and craft session at 7 p.m. every third Wednesday of the month at the Wood Dale City Hall Community Room, 404 N. Wood Dale Road.

For details on Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital, call (800) 432-5005 or visit alexianbrothershealth.org.

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