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A (pillow)case for smiles

Hundreds of pillows cases, which area needle workers donated to sick children, are on display at Ben Franklin Crafts in Wadena and Detroit Lakes. 1 / 6
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If you’ve been in Ben Franklin on Jefferson Street in Wadena, you’ve seen they are proudly displaying their laundry – and for a very good cause.

During the entire month of April, Ben Franklin partnered with ConKerr Cancer, a Pennsylvania-based organization that provides pillowcases to hospitalized children with life threatening illnesses. There are 130 chapters in the United States alone as well as international chapters in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Malaysia.

The organization is hoping to yield 1,000,000 completed pillowcases by the end of 2014. To date more than 880,000 pillow cases have been delivered to more than 250 hospitals across the country.

Of those, over 10,000 have been given to kids in Minnesota.

Cindy Kerr started ConKerr Cancer after her son, Ryan, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (bone cancer) when he was just 12 years old. She made him pillowcases for his many hospital stays, which consisted of 30 months of chemotherapy, 15 surgeries, and several months of physical therapy.  

Ryan lost his leg and later his life to cancer. Instead of shutting down, his mom plugged in her sewing machine and made it her mission to help other kids who are diagnosed with cancer.

Cindy McCullough, the owner of the Wadena and Detroit Lakes Ben Franklin stores, learned about ConKerr Cancer at a craft and hobby show. That show set the gears in motion and she knew she wanted to be involved. In their first year, the two stores donated more than 500 pillow cases. This is the second year Ben Franklin has joined forces with this amazing organization. While short of their 500 pillowcase goal, they are happy to report that so far, 255 pillowcases have come in and they are expecting more.

Linnea Gray, manager of the Wadena Ben Franklin store, said although this is an April event, please feel free to drop pillowcases any time of the year.

Of the pillowcases that are dropped off at the Wadena store, 75 percent go to ConKerr Cancer and the other 25 percent go to Wadena County Human Services. Social workers distribute them to kids when they conduct their routine home visits.

One local woman, Renee Knudsen made over 60 pillowcases! There are sewing events at Ben Franklin and that quilting groups are hopping on board to help sew as well.

Gray said once the completed pillowcases are dropped off at Ben Franklin, staff members take them home, wash them with dye and fragrance free detergent, iron them and then package them up into quart zip-lock bags.

From there, Carolyn Krause, ConKerr’s Minnesota coordinator, picks them up and distributes them to Minnesota Hospitals. Some of the hospitals that are blessed with the donated pillowcases include: Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis, St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis and University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.

Melissa Pohlig, secretary on the ConKerr board of directors who is also in charge of the organization’s social media presence, was once a classmate of Kerr’s son, Ryan.

Pohlig said she is overwhelmed with the generosity of those who are involved. Most of the people doing the legwork never get to see the joy that their pillowcases bring to others or the kids that receive them, she said.

Pohlig, who started sewing pillowcases with her sorority in college, isn’t aware of another group that does what ConKerr does and that’s what keeps them going.

Although ConKerr Cancer can’t cure cancer, the group is trying to do something for the kids to look forward to while in the hospital. The pillowcases also provide a positive distraction for the doctors and nurses to talk to the kids about while treating them.  

My mom, an avid sewer, lost her battle with cancer in 2012. I have her sewing machines and supplies.

My friend Beth invited me to a quilt retreat up at Forest Haven the first weekend of April. I am not a seamstress but I saw the pillowcase kits for sale at Ben Franklin while scrambling to come up with a project for the retreat.

I had no idea what ConKerr Cancer was all about but thought I could make a pillowcase.

It didn’t start well. For starters, I haven’t sewn anything in almost 20 years. Additionally, the sewing machine I was using hadn’t been fired up for at least two years. Apparently sewing machines are like cars and things start to go wrong when they are not used. The part that holds the spool of thread on literally flew off my machine and almost hit a lady sharing a table with me.

To make matters worse, anytime I started sewing the room went quiet because no one could talk over the horrible noises coming from my work station. Some of them were from me but most were from my machine.

A jet taking off was quieter.
Thank goodness some of the other quilters took pity on me and came to my rescue. They added oil to places I didn’t even know existed and I was back in business - and they were back to their conversations.

By the end of the weekend I had made three pillowcases! If you have a sewing machine, an iron, bright, cheery fabric and can sew a straight line, you can help. There are instructions on the ConKerr Cancer website ( and are countless videos on YouTube for those like me that cannot follow written directions.

If you can’t sew you can always make a monetary donation or donate fabric. It’s something small you can do to help others that could use a smile and to let them know that people out there care.