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Helping autistic kids, one heavy blanket at a time

An unplanned chain of events changed life for Mike and Mary Remarke from Grove City. It has also changed the lives of hundreds of children throughout the world. The Remarkes make weighted quilts from denim jeans for autistic children, and they don’t ask to be paid for their work. Their reward is the comments they get from the people who receive the quilts. “You won’t believe what some people say. It will bring tears to your eyes,” said Mary and Mike. Since October of 2009 they have made more than 200 quilts and have sent them all over the world: California, Utah, Texas, Louisiana, state of Washington, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Australia and recently have received an order from England. The chain of events started when their son, Mike Jr., was working in Pierre, S.D., and he didn’t like the hotel he was living in. He asked his mom if she could make him a denim quilt. Mike said there was a store in Hutchinson that had a blanket made out of jeans and it had pockets. So Mary went to the store to check it out. She came home and made Mike Jr.’s denim blanket with a heavy-duty sewing machine they just purchased. He came home, picked up the denim blanket and took it back to Pierre. Their daughter, Alli, who was living in Louisiana, said her son, Deen, would get so angry he would trash the house because he wanted his dad, who was stationed in Afghanistan. Allie handled that for a year. Then in October of 2009, their 2-year old grandson, Deen, was diagnosed with autism by Dr. Ross of Litchfield. He recommended they get him a weighted blanket to calm him down when he melts down. “Alli was living with us at the time and we went online and typed in ‘w-e-i-g-h-t-e-d b-l-a-n-k-e-t-s’. We found weighted blankets but couldn’t believe how much they cost. They were charging $200 to $1,000 for a weighted blanket,” Mary said. “These kids were so broke they couldn’t afford a roll of toilet paper let alone a weighted blanket. So we first started by covering Deen with a bunch of blankets. When my son was home from Pierre, he had the blanket I had made him. Deen crawled under the blanket and fell asleep. “We got more jean pockets and made it smaller and heavier. Kids like the denim pockets. They can hide things in them such as keys, cell phones, etc. We added the extra weight with the back made of denim. Deen gets so overstimulated that the weight of the blanket just calms him down. We don’t know why it works but it does. We know with Deen it is amazing.” “We didn’t know how hard it hits you until it hit our own family. You wake up and it changes you. I tell people, ‘imagine how these kids feel’. They can’t say I feel angry or I am scared of the lights at Walmart. They just can’t tell us that. They don’t outgrow it but they learn coping skills,” Mary said. If you know an autistic child, they are not the neatest little things in the world. Alli washes Deen’s blanket sometimes every day … and they hold up. They don’t wear out. Some weighted blanket manufacturers put in rice to make the blanket heavier. When using rice you won’t be able to wash the blanket. Or they have plastic beads and those blankets have to be dry cleaned. Alli had a friend she met who also had a son that was autistic. So they made a blanket for him. Alli said we should make blankets for other kids. “We never dreamed it was going to be this big. That’s how we got started,” Mary said. Then Alli made a website on Facebook called Deen’s Blankets and they got a couple of requests. Deen’s Blankets Facebook page has more than 700 visitors at the present time. Some friends said they should go into business, but Mary said they just can’t. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re just a couple of grandparents, grandma and grandpa, and it means a lot to us to help other families. We had one mother say she would send money for the postage but she is a single mom and she could not send the $15 for the postage. Don’t worry about it,” we told her. “How sad it is that they cannot afford the help they need for their autistic child.” “When Mike was laid off, we made nine blankets and we were broke. We can’t mail them but we can still make them. It may take us a month or two but they will get their blanket. I delivered a blanket to Isabelle Niemeyer in Hutchinson, the father, Joel, works for the Hutchinson radio station,” Mike said. “I couldn’t get out of their home without a thousand hugs from the mom because she just couldn’t believe we do that.” “We know people cannot afford them”, said Mike. “I deliver a lot of blankets. I was laid off for 18 months so I had time on my hands. I did a lot of delivering and talking. It brings tears to your eyes when you see the mom and dad crying because their daughters or sons enjoy the blankets we gave them. That’s all the thanks we need. It’s incredible. We just thought we would make a few blankets. Now it is over 200 with seven on the to do list.” The Remarkes have received many donations of jeans since they started three years ago and are always willing to take on more. People can call them at 320-857-0009 or drop them off at their house at 207 2nd St. in Grove City. One person from Texas sent them two boxes of jeans. “How wonderful,” said Mary. “We’ve met so many cool people.” Mike’s full-time job is working with Jesse Trebil Foundation. He is also the fire chief for the Grove City Fire Dept. Mary is a nurse with Central Minnesota Senior Care and she is involved with raising funds for families that have autistic children. It all starts with a pile of jeans. The size of the quilt is based on 10 percent of the weight of the person receiving the quilt, plus one pound. The Remarkes brother and sister-in-law, Jim and Katherine Bode,  and a friend Kathy Garner help them by cutting the jeans. Then Mary sews the pieces of denim together in strips. “It takes me about three hours to sew a blanket if that’s all I have to do,” said Mary. “If the phone is ringing, dishes or laundry to do, the blankets will have to wait. Mike ties the blanket while watching television at night. Then a border is added along with the backing of the quilt.” “We do the border in different ways. If a family has two or three kids we do the trim in different colors so the kids know which one is theirs.” They have one border that has puzzle pieces on it. The puzzle piece is the international sign for autism. “We’ve had a couple of requests from some of our first blankets in which they said their child is getting a little tall and needs a bigger blanket. We told them we will make them new blankets and asked them to give their old blankets to a special needs child. Pass them on. Keep them going,” Mary said. One special blanket was made for Heather Derosier from Wisconsin. Her sister had been killed in an auto accident when she was only 16 years old. Heather wanted the Remarkes to make a blanket using her sister’s jeans for her daughter, Natalie, who was recently diagnosed with sensory intragration issues. “Natalie absolutely adores her blanket that came today,” Derosier wrote. “All Natalie wanted to do was stuff things in the pockets. She rolls on it and says it tickles. She fell asleep at naptime with no problem. She zonked out right away.” This letter came from the Niemeyers of Hutchinson: Mike and Mary — You are angels here on earth! My husband Joel, myself, my daughter, Arielle (Isabelle’s sister) and both sets of grandparents want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the weighted blanket that you made for our daughter, Isabelle. She gets overstimulated at times and when we have her sit down on the couch and put her blanket on her, she calms right down. Also, she still is napping everyday and before she received her weighted blanket she would fight her nap. Now, she just lays down and goes right to sleep. Her younger sister actually tries to “steal” her blanket! You have changed our lives. Thank you can never be enough for us to express our appreciation. It’s so amazing that there are wonderful people out in the world that understand what autistic parents and family members deal with when it comes to caring for an autistic individual. The day that Mike came to drop off Isabelle’s blanket brought tears to our eyes. It was such a heartfelt moment that we will treasure always. God bless you! “We just enjoy doing it. It is such a sense of accomplishment when you get one done and get it mailed. Standing at the post office we feel we helped another kid, another mom and dad. You are helping the parents just as much as the child. Because we have seen what Alli has gone through with Deen, it breaks your heart,” said Mary. “They get the blanket and they tell you we were up all night because our child was sleeping and we’re not used to that. What a difference, getting a good night’s sleep makes for these kids in their disposition the next day. Now that they are sleeping, life is better. Therapy is better. School is better. It all works together. It all comes from one simple little event of how we made our first blanket.”

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