BRAINERD, Minn. -- In life, people may feel compelled to do something nice for others. It may be a pay-it-forward act of kindness to help someone out for the day. For others, paying it forward may be more than one deed — it can be an ongoing act of kindness.
An Aitkin woman’s act of kindness began about eight years ago — and it continues today as it is her mission to help others. When the act of kindness ignited in Melissa Blazek’s brain — there was no stopping her. Blazek knew exactly what she was going to do and nothing was going to stop her.
Blazek crochets hats for women who have cancer and are fighting for their life. Since 2012 she has made about 2,500 hats for women, mainly in Minnesota but also to women around the country. She founded the organization called MN Hats 4 Hope.
Blazek makes the hats and ships them to the women — all for free. She doesn’t ask for any money. She does this because it is something she needs to do.
In 2012, Blazek was 38-years-old. She had her annual appointment with her doctor for a physical. Her doctor performed a pap smear exam and found abnormal cells. Her doctor did further testing and found cancer in her birthing canal area. She was sent to an oncologist in Woodbury.
Blazek went to her appointment with her sister to see Dr. Catherine Casey, who was about an hour and a half behind in her appointments. This gave Blazek a lot of time to think while she sat in the waiting room. Time to think the worst and realize she could die. She sat in her chair thinking bad thoughts and watched several ladies without hair going in and out of the doctor’s office. Some ladies had intravenous therapy at their side as they waited to be called.
“I was watching all these ladies with no hair and I was sitting there knowing I am fully healthy, but this was my first appointment and I didn’t know what I would be facing,” Blazek said. “It was just getting depressing sitting there and I began crying in my chair. I had two teenagers at that time and I began to think of all the stuff I would be missing out on. I had myself dead and buried, as you think of the worst.”
And then it happened. A woman came walking into the waiting room all smiles.
“Her smile wanted you to smile and she had this beautiful crocheted hat on,” Blazek said. “I was so focused on this lady. She smiled and I watched her on how she interacted with staff. She was so bubbly and nice and I thought anyone who has to go through something like this should have a beautiful hat like she does that makes her feel so good.”
And just like that, it started. Blazek turned to her sister and said she was going to teach herself how to crochet and she would make hats for cancer patients. She already knew her plans, how she would do it and came up for a name for her new mission — MN Hats 4 Hope.
“I’m not going to charge for my hats,” Blazek told her sister in the waiting room that day. “I’m going to give them out for free to brighten someone’s day who is going through something like this.”
Blazek said her grandmother taught her how to crochet when I was about 10, but she didn’t teach the stitch names. Her grandmother taught her in general how to crochet, such as how to hold the hook, but not what a single, double or triple stitch was. Blazek searched for weeks to try to find a YouTube video on how to make a hat like the one that inspired her.
She found a hat with a flower on the side and made a few of the hats, but they didn’t look like hats — and weren’t big enough to fit a toddler. Blazek didn’t give up. She kept practicing and began getting better at it.
Blazek makes all her hats with “I Love This Yarn!” usually found at any Hobby Lobby.
“I use this yarn and this yarn only,” she said. “It is super soft for bald heads.
“A lot of people want to send me yarn and this is very nice for them to want to donate yarn to me for this cause, but I will only use the ‘I Love This Yarn!’ when I make the hats.”
The hats have a fur ball on the top, which are attached by a button so if the woman wants to take it off, it is easily removed. She orders the fur balls from Amazon. The final touch on the hat is a small leather tag with the MN Hats 4 Hope emblem.
“My leather tags were costing me $1.50 to have done so I needed to find a leather engraver,” Blazek said. She found one and now she can make the tags for about 50 cents each. Blazek started a small business called “Wooden It Be Nice Designs” where she creates items with her leather engraver. She uses its profits to help pay for postage to mail the hats.
When Blazek was ready to donate her hats, it began by word of mouth. She asked her family and friends if they knew of anyone with cancer who would want a hat. It started out small. She dished out about 25 hats. She sent about 10 hats with a friend whose daughter had cancer and who was attending a Vikings game to pass out to anyone else with cancer.
She started a Facebook page for MN Hats 4 Hope to reach out to more people. People send requests for a hat by going to her page at https://www.facebook.com/MNHats4Hope/. She said when she first started the page it got more than 10,000 shares. She had so many requests for hats, she couldn’t keep up. She was sending hats to women in Minnesota and all over the country. A few years ago, she had to tone it done and only make hats for women in Minnesota.
People would request a hat and share information with Blazek, like the recipient’s favorite color to help her make them a special hat and to share their story of cancer.
“A lot of people say to me ‘Why do you do this?’” Blazek said. “This is my little pay it forward in life. Everyone needs a purpose. This was going to be my purpose.”
Blazek said her cancer journey was nothing compared to many of the ladies she gifted a hat to. Her cancer was contained. She had back-to-back surgeries and had a complete hysterectomy.
“I didn’t lose any hair. I didn’t do any chemo or radiation,” Blazek said. “Everything was caught in the very early stage. I didn’t have the journey that I was watching when I was in the waiting room. That is why I started it all. I am going to pay it back in life because I am so blessed. I didn’t have to go through that extensive of a journey.”
Blazek said the stories she hears from people who wear her hat are touching and those stories keep her wanting to continue to make the hats. Once she received a message from someone who said their mother loved her MN Hats 4 Hope so much that when she died they buried her with the hat on.
Blazek has two people who help her make her hats, which helps fill the requests. They volunteer their time and also buy the yarn and fur balls. Her family — husband Tom and their two adult children: Stephanie, 21, and Jeremy, 19 — also have been supportive of her mission and have helped out.
A cancer survivor
Baxter resident Lori Schweitzberger began her breast cancer journey last year, going through chemotherapy during the summer months. Schweitzberger’s friend submitted her name for a MN Hats 4 Hope. The hat, beige in color, came in the mail with a small letter about Blazek’s story and why she makes the hat.
“I’ve worn this hat ever since and I wear it with pride,” Schweitzberger said. “It’s the perfect hat, perfect size ... and the thought behind it. I know a couple people going through their cancer journey so I submitted their names and they got a hat, too.
“How giving and unselfish, and to not expect anything in return. I donated some yarn in the mail for her.”
Schweitzberger said she receives many compliments on her hat and it makes her feel good.
Schweitzberger’s breast cancer is gone for now and she doesn’t expect it to come back.
“I had tremendous support from my coworkers and family,” she said. “Your attitude is everything (when fighting cancer.)”
Schweitzberger encourages all women to have mammograms, no matter how young or old they are. She said she knows women who are in their 20s and 30s to older women in their 60s and 70s.
How to Donate
Blazek doesn’t expect or request donations, but if people want to help with the cause of MN Hats for Hope they may do so by sending monetary donations to 39903 358th Lane, Aitkin, MN 56431 or through the organization’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MNHats4Hope/.
Monetary donations will help the Aitkin woman pay for postage. One hat costs about $4.39 to mail first class. People also may donate “I Love This Yarn!”