When Tamara Baker of Massapequa first learned she was diagnosed with a rare blood disease in 1999, she decided to use her setback to help others facing medical hardships. A visit to a pediatric oncologist at Weill-Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan sparked compassion in Baker for children battling cancer.
“I sat in their waiting room all day waiting to see the doctor and I saw kids going in and coming out for treatment,” she said. “I was very touched by the children because they appeared to be very cold and very fearful.”
That was enough motivation to develop the foundation for her charity, We Care Blankets. Despite Baker’s own health challenges, her steadfast goal to bring comfort and warmth to children fighting cancer eased the burden of coping with her diagnosis.
The gift of blankets felt instinctive to Baker, an experienced knitter who regularly gave blankets to her four children and five grandchildren for milestones from moving to a “big kid” bed to heading off to college.
“Blankets were part of my way of expressing love to my family,” she said. “It was something I thought of because I saw kids suffering..and to a young child what’s the most comforting thing of all? A blanket.”
The mission to warm up the lives of patients gained traction shortly after Baker’s initial doctor’s visit. Touched by the children, Baker created fliers seeking knitters to create as many blankets as possible to cover the pint-sized warriors. Word of mouth about Baker’s efforts made its way to experienced knitters and crocheters throughout Long Island and Brooklyn who shared the same empathy for cancer patients.
The amount of interest exceeded Baker’s expectations, leading to a good kind of problem: finding funding for volunteers.
“I wanted to be able to provide the volunteers with yarn to make these blankets,” she said. “I felt that these people were giving themselves and their creativity so they shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
As Baker simultaneously coped with her own illness, her oncologist learned and became moved by her work, deciding to fund the organization for the next few years. Additionally, others interested began to host yarn drives for supplies, which are just as popular today.
Within two years, the fast-growing number of motivated knitters and non-knitters inspired the committee to begin to host blanket wrapping events at the Merrick Library, where blankets are prepared for delivery to hospitals in the area and around the country.
Today, the wrap events bring volunteers from throughout the area from a diverse set of backgrounds and characteristics with the same motivation Baker had in the hospital waiting room now more than 17 years ago.
“It’s a room that’s very warm and a lot of people with a common goal people who care,” she said. “There are people who have survived this disease and know what chemo is all about and there are people who have never had this disease but have an empathy for the children.”
Baker makes sure that every blanket has a home even if it cannot be sent to a hospital because of safety standards. Additional beneficiaries of We Care Blankets include siblings of cancer patients through a partnership with the Ronald McDonald House, victims of Hurricane Harvey and Superstorm Sandy, homeless youth in Syria, and children in hospitals in Israel.
Baker is now free of the disease that led her to create the organization but is still as involved in We Care Blankets as she was at its birth. Her efforts have led to her recognition as a 2018 New York State Woman of Distinction from State Senator John Brooks. Instantly moved by the willpower of Baker and the volunteers after a visit to a wrap party, Brooks named her a recipient shortly after.
“I was very touched because I went and represented the organization and accepted this award and I felt this award belonged to all of us,” she said. “All these wonderful honors and accolades I do appreciate, but I share them because I didn’t do this alone.”
As Baker begins the process to put We Care Blankets in the hands of the next leaders, she hopes future generations are able to understand the importance of simple, meaningful missions.
“I think that the most important value of all is to care enough about another person and their family; the value I put on this particular charity is knowing that whatever you’re doing or whatever you’re creating is going to make somebody who’s ill very happy,” she said.
“We can’t just shut our eyes, ears and minds indoors to the needs of people around us.”
To learn more about We Care Blankets, visit www.wecareblankets.org or find them on Facebook. Those interested in donating a knitted blanket can call 516-797-2250 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements. Additionally, interested volunteers may hold yarn drives to continue Baker’s desire to let volunteers knit at no cost to them.
The next wrap event for We Care Blankets will be held at the Merrick Library at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 1.