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Lap Robes For The Terminally Ill - Ellie's Angels

Bonnie Mason

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Angels don't focus on mundane matters. Food, shelter, transportation? None of these earthly necessities are of their concern.

Ellie Handsel of Atlanta is such an angel. She doesn't own a home or car, but often spends what little money she has on soft, silky yarn.

Yarn? Yes. The yarn is for the elegant but cuddly afghans Elle and 568 other volunteers crochet for the terminally ill.

To date, Ellie and her angels have created over 10,000 lap robes. “It's a labor of love, " she says. In fact, Ellie spends all of her waking (and some of her sleeping) hours crocheting afghans, coordinating the efforts of volunteers, and shipping lap blankets to other cities and states.

It is not unusual, for instance, for her to receive requests from as far away as California. In Atlanta, the crochet artist (who was nicknamed “Smoking Needle" because she crochets at least one lap robe a day) and her band of angel-volunteers deliver personal, handwritten notes along with the lap robes.

As a result, patients report that they can feel the love that is crocheted into every loop. “It's not just the warmth, " says a now recovered heart patient. “Wrapping up in one of Ellie's lap robes gives you almost an ethereal feeling of being loved. "

The framework for Ellie's Angels began to be built in December of 1989 when she visited Jerusalem House, an AIDS hospice in Atlanta. The loneliness and isolation she saw there changed her life. When she noticed how cold some of the patients’ hands and feet were, she decided to crochet lap blankets for them in their favorite colors. “It was a Christmas gift to myself, " she says.

From that day on, Ellie's original idea mushroomed into a project in which others wanted to participate. Local publicity pulled in volunteer knitters and donations of yarn.

An ecumenical effort, volunteers come from varying spiritual and religious orientations. To receive a blanket, however, no religious affiliation is necessary. Patients in hospices, hospitals, and at home can all benefit.

All this makes Ellie happy. Her commitment to this project and its expansion throughout the United States is perhaps unparalleled. At no time has her concern been with herself. Money? Food? “I haven't starved yet, " she says.

But she has gone from living in an upscale Dunwoody neighborhood to living in a small apartment with much of her meager savings depleted.

What fans the flame of such passion? The response, of course, from patients. For some, it's the hug they will never receive, the love no one ever gave.

For others it's a comforting, soothing touch, much like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold, dark, lonely winter night, perhaps the darkest, loneliest night they have ever known.

But when Ellie tells a reporter that many patients have requested to be buried with their afghans, tears fill her eyes. She makes a point of being emotionally available, especially around holidays. When she can't visit in person, she gives patients a call.

"It may not seem like much, " says Ellie, referring to the love crocheted into each lap robe. “Others do more. It's not money. It's not medicine. But it's what I can do. "


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