Local woman enlists youth hockey players to make tie-blanket gifts for Head Start kids

Grand Forks Aviators hockey players help Wendy Nelson hand out handmade tie-blankets that the team assisted Nelson with making for Head Start children at 4000 Valley Square Thursday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Five-year-old Astrid Mickels clutched a fleece blanket adorned with images of Elsa and Anna, stars of the “Frozen” movie, at her Head Start classroom at Valley Senior Living on 42nd, formerly 4000 Valley Square.

She already has a “Frozen” pillow at home and now she has a blanket to match, she said.

Astrid was among nearly 30 children, ages 3 to 5, who received blankets made by members of a local boys hockey team. The cozy, colorful blankets were distributed this week, just before the kids left for the holidays.

“I’m going to play with it,” Astrid said, in no uncertain terms, when asked about her plans for the blanket. As she said it, her face lit up with happiness.


The project is the brainchild of Wendy Nelson, a resident at Valley Senior Living on Columbia, formerly Valley Eldercare, who has been making smaller-size tie blankets to donate for some time, including for the local humane society. Using an adaptive technique, she’s also made personalized tie blankets for children who are coping – as she is – with a degenerative condition called ataxia telangiectasia, which affects the nervous system.

Nelson, who is wheelchair-bound, wanted to give a blanket to each child at this Head Start location before Christmas. Because of physical limitations, she needed help to carry out the project.

Andrea Reynolds, the hockey team manager, heard about Nelson’s goal and contacted Garth Rydland, president and CEO of Valley Senior Living, about making it happen. The facility’s foundation provided funds to purchase the fleece.

“Andrea thought it would be a good project for the team to get involved in,” said coach Tim Skarperud. “The team wanted to get involved with a community support project. It’s important for the kids to get involved in the community and give back.”

His 15 hockey players, ages 13 to 15, are members of the Grand Forks Bantam AA hockey team, part of the Grand Forks Youth Hockey Association, Skarperud said.

During a couple of after-school sessions, under Nelson’s guidance, they cut 5-inch-long strips on the edges of two layers of fleece and tied the strips together to make the blankets.

Nelson has been a good teacher, Skarperud said. “She keeps them in line.”


Mason Reynolds, a hockey team member, said he and his teammates worked about four or five hours on the project, under Nelson’s supervision. Making fleece tie-blankets is a new experience for them, he said. “It wasn’t easy at first. But it got easier as it went along.”

“It was a good bonding experience,” Reynolds said. “We got closer as a team.”

The blankets are solid color on one side; on the other side are various images, such as cartoon figures or sports themes, to appeal to each gender.

For the distribution, the hockey players wore Santa Claus caps. They lined up, each holding a gift bag containing a blanket wrapped in tissue paper, alongside Nelson, who told the kids about the project and the hockey players’ contribution.

When the kids pulled the blankets out of the individually-labeled gift bags, reactions were swift and sometimes noisy. Tissue paper flew.

Some wrapped themselves tightly in their blankets and jumped in place; others exclaimed, “It’s so soft” or “I love my blanket” or “I could sleep in it all day.”

Rydland was impressed by “how it all came together in such as short time frame."

“It’s good to get (students) thinking about other people, beyond themselves, especially at that age,” Rydland said. “And to have a resident who lives here and has a passion to do for others, we want to facilitate those community connections. We’re hoping this will inspire others in long-term care; they still have a lot to contribute. It’s a fun way in which we’re growing.”


“This really has been an awesome project to watch unfold,” said Sally Grosgebauer, director of marketing for Valley Senior Living, “and the intergenerational touch on so many levels has been amazing.”

Nelson, too, was pleased with the teenage boys’ volunteer efforts.

“It’s awesome,” she said. “If they start young they’ll do it in the future.

“I think it feels good to do something for each other.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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