One local couple and their family has been covering the city of Louisville in love and warmth for the last 20 years. What started as a family school project for Steve and Kathy Fehder quickly morphed into a local nonprofit with the potential to go nationwide.
“In 2002, our family embarked on a school community-based project,” Steve Fehder says. “It was designed to allow our children and other students to give back to the community. We learned that one item that is always needed at homeless shelters is blankets. We decided to collect blankets and distribute them on Valentine’s Day. That’s when Blanket Louisville was born.”
Each blanket had a personal note saying, ‘You are loved.’ The response was overwhelmingly positive and very successful. Steve says the couple discussed it and decided to continue collecting and distributing blankets the following year. They decided to involve other schools, businesses, churches and organizations. What started as a grassroots effort grew each year exponentially.
“That first year, we thought we would probably collect a couple of hundred blankets, but we collected over 400 blankets,” Kathy Fehder says. “The following year, we collected around 1,000 blankets. Then the next year, we collected over 2,000 blankets. It just grew each year from there. Over the last 20 years, we have collected and distributed over 135,000 blankets.”
The couple quickly learned they needed the help of other volunteers and organizations to identify those in need. They partnered with Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville. Steve says they had no idea how significant the need for blankets is in a shelter. Blankets are the one item residents take with them when they leave the homeless shelter, so there is always a need.
“Our partnership with Coalition for the Homeless was instrumental to our growth,” he says. “We were able to identify more homeless shelters, transitional shelters and outreach organizations. We now distribute to more than 30 different organizations.”
Each year, Blanket Louisville begins the collection process in October—it concludes in November and the blankets are distributed before Thanksgiving. Each blanket is still adorned with a handmade note telling the recipient they are loved. That message is paramount to share.
“A blanket represents warmth on the outside but also the inside,” she says. “The note is important because we want people to know someone cares about them. We want them all to know they’re beautiful human beings whose life matters.”
Kathy says distributing the blankets near Thanksgiving is meaningful and meant to remind everyone there is always a reason to be thankful no matter life’s circumstances.
“I remember one young woman at the shelter who felt she had nothing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving,” Kathy says. “I gave her a blanket and explained she still had a life to be thankful for and a lot of life yet to live. She was so happy with the blanket, and it was a positive experience for the both of us.”
Kathy says over the years, they’ve had volunteers collecting door-to-door blankets, sewing and producing blankets and donating gently used and new blankets with the intent of giving back to the community.
“We had one woman who would take rags and sew them together and stitch fleece on the backside,” she says. “She’s donated hundreds of blankets over the years. One year when my kids were younger, we were driving downtown, and we saw a woman pushing a grocery cart. She had one of those blankets made of rags. It was so amazing to see that our work was reaching people.”
Over the last five years, Blanket Louisville has expanded its distribution efforts to include other groups and organizations in need. While shelters are the more significant portion of their recipients, they’ve also donated to Volunteers of America, YMCA Safe Place, Catholic Charities of Louisville Refugee Services, flood victims of eastern Kentucky and tornado victims in western Kentucky.
“Everyone deserves to be warm no matter who the person is or their circumstance,” Kathy says. “We’re a country of abundance, and Americans want to give generously if given the opportunity. Over the years, we learned the idea of giving needs to be simple. There are so many compassionate, generous people out there.
In 2008, Disney’s Family Fun Magazine announced that the Fehder family was selected as a grand prize winner of their 2007-2008 annual Family Volunteer contest. The contest is open to families across the United States, and Disney receives thousands of entries each year. The contest promotes family volunteering. The Fehders were awarded $5,000 for Blanket Louisville.
“That award was significant because it’s a nationwide award,” she says. “We started having people reach out asking how they could replicate what we were doing in their city. We explained we’ve been so successful because of our volunteers. It’s a community effort. It was nice to see the desire to give at a national level.”
Steve describes their work over the years as a small idea making a big impact. Soon, that impact is going to be felt nationwide. The couple hopes to launch BlanketUSA.
“BlanketUSA is an offshoot of the success of Blanket Louisville and has been a long-time vision,” Steve says. “BlanketUSA will be housed or based out of Louisville but will serve homeless and less fortunate organizations and some emergency relief organizations across the country. We will rely on donations and grants to fulfill requests. Each blanket will still be tagged with a simple but powerful message ‘You are loved.’ We will connect to organizations nationwide via the National Association to End Homelessness and others.”
Steve describes Kathy as the operational powerhouse behind Blanket Louisville. The growth of Blanket Louisville is even more impressive, knowing both Kathy and Steve work full-time jobs in addition to supporting the nonprofit. Steve serves as chief partnerships officer at Odessa Connect, while Kathy is the principal of Corpus Christi Classical Academy.
“It’s incredible when you think about how this little family service project has grown in the last 20 years,” she says. “It not only lifts the recipients, but it also lifts up the givers. I can never underestimate the power of kids who witness giving and generosity in action. I’m a firm believer in extending the opportunity to give. We invite everyone to be a part of our effort.”
Blanket Louisville is always looking for volunteers to help collect, organize and distribute blankets. Kathy says they used to be able to store the blankets in their basement but have had to enlist a storage facility due to their growth.
“We’ve hosted bagging parties in the past to help bag up the blankets before distribution day,” Kathy says. “There are so many ways people can get involved. While we don’t solicit cash donations, they certainly are accepted and do help.”
The couple is exceptionally grateful for the help of their children, volunteers and board members over the years. They want to extend gratitude to Tony Nold, who has been an instrumental part of Blanket Louisville for the last 19 years. He’s participated in every collection and distribution throughout the years, and his store, Plant Kingdom, serves as a drop off location. Undoubtedly, the Fehders will be spreading love and warming hearts and souls for years to come.
For more information, visit blanketlouisville.org.
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