Back in 2007 when Glen Ellyn resident Linda Kastiel Kozlowski started crocheting blankets for shelter animals, she made 100 that first year.
Since then, Comfort for Critters has become an official nonprofit, has about 80 volunteers, and ships handcrafted blankets to about 50 shelters in Illinois and 30 out-of-state. That's 15,000 blankets and counting. More than 3,000 blankets will be shipped out this year alone.
"Each year, we just do more and more and get more people involved," Kozlowski said. "That's really how it's grown. It's people contacting me."
Kozlowski didn't foresee herself starting Comfort for Critters back when she adopted her cat, Anna, from DuPage Animal Control shelter in Wheaton in 2007.
She just felt sorry for all the animals she couldn't take home and asked what she could do. The shelter suggested bringing in old towels, but Kozlowski, a crafter, asked if she could crochet blankets instead. Making that first 100 blankets was a bit daunting, she admitted.
"(In) 2007, it was really just me," she said.
By the next year, her mother-in-law joined her in making blankets. Kozlowski, the mother of two sons, often brought her crocheting to their sporting events and people would ask what she was working on. Word spread so that by 2009, she started a website, ComfortForCritters.org, and became official.
Dependent on donations of yarn and fleece to make the blankets and volunteers to help with the work, Kozlowski said somehow it has all worked out.
"I'm a Christian, and I think God has something for each of us to do," she said. "I think when you do what God is calling you to do, things just happen."
Some of the volunteers have told Kozlowski that making the blankets helps them refrain from smoking or overeating. Other volunteers live in retirement homes. Kozlowski supplies the materials and residents turn out knitted and crocheted blankets at a pace that suits them, and receive personal thank-you notes from Kozlowski.
"The directors love it. They say it's a perfect activity because it's social," she said. "They make the most beautiful blankets, so detailed, the colors and the trim. You just see the caring and love."
Aimée Tyler, director of resident programs at The Meadows of Glen Ellyn, said the home has a knitting group of about 10 ladies called The Happy Hookers that help make the blankets.
"It's a really purposeful activity for our residents because they feel it's helping," she said.
Kozlowski said the blankets do make a real difference in the lives of shelter animals. The blankets are provided free to the shelters, with the request that each animal be allowed to take its blanket when it's adopted.
"The animals really do bond with the blanket," she said. "It's something consistent through the whole process."
The blankets may even aid shelter animals in finding a home, Kozlowski said.
"The shelters say they really make them appear more homey, more like a pet, not like a stray," she said.
Amanda Majewski, division assistant at DuPage Animal Control, agreed that the eye-catching blankets help draw attention to the shelter animals.
"They're really nice and bright. They have those great colors," she said. "We see a lot of happy adopters when we have those out."
The blankets most often are 20-inch-by-20-inch, but Kozlowski said volunteers make both smaller and larger blankets. In addition to dogs and cats, the handmade blankets have gone to ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs, fennec foxes, fancy rats and big cats such as bobcats and tigers. She uses her monthly newsletter to educate readers about different animals.
"I love all animals," said Kozlowski, whose own family's menagerie includes two cats, a dog, guinea pigs, fish and a python.
A freelance writer who wrote the book "Motherhood Inc.," and an active community volunteer in several organizations, Kozlowski estimated she devotes 10 to 15 hours a week to Comfort for Critters.
"It's not work. I love doing it," she said.
In addition to shipping out blankets and dropping off materials, Kozlowski encourages volunteers to take the blankets to a nearby participating shelter and has a Glen Ellyn drop-off box where donations and finished blankets can be left. Last year, a woman visiting from Paris who had heard about Comfort for Critters left her some blankets, she said.
Comfort for Critter's biggest need is for materials, Kozlowski said. She said donors often are happy to get unused materials out of their houses.
"We can always use yarn. We can always use fleece," she said. "Fleece is really expensive."
Even small pieces of material can be put to good use, Kozlowski said. Clients of the Ray Graham Association have braided narrower strips of fleece to make pull toys for pets. She uses cash donations to help with shipping costs.
The generosity of volunteers and donors has warmed her own heart, Kozlowski said.
"It reminds me of the good in the world," she said.