On a recent Thursday at Stone Middle School, instead of rushing home when classes ended, 50 students gathered in the cafeteria to create jester hats for sick children. They worked in teams, each performing one of the 12 tasks that, all together, resulted in a finished hat.
At seventh-grader Amanda Phung’s table, students inserted the elastic to make the hat sizes adjustable. “The hardest part is pushing it through,” said Amanda. “But I feel really good because I know I’m helping kids who have cancer.”
She and the others were participating in a workshop for Glories/Happy HATS (Helping Adolescents to Succeed), a nonprofit organization that benefits children suffering from serious illnesses. At the same time, it encourages youth, 6-18, to participate in a community-service project.
IN JUST TWO HOURS, they worked on 600 hats made of soft fabric in brightly colored patterns. Then, to each one, they attached a tag bearing a cheerful, encouraging note from its maker. This batch of jester hats was headed for Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children, where they’re always a welcome sight.
Says Emily Kear, Child Life Specialist there: “When the Glories hats arrive at our hospital, it’s as if the rain clouds have moved away and the sunshine has come in with the happiness that the hats bring.”
Fairfax resident Susan Khorsand — who brought all the materials and equipment to make the hats at Stone — founded Happy HATS as a tribute to her mother who died when Khorsand was 15. And she said Inova needs 10,000 of these hats each year.
Trisha Egbers, who teaches Family and Consumer Sciences (today’s home economics) at Stone, said the program came to Fairfax County Public Schools when a group of teachers got together to do Happy HATS as a community-service project. Egbers got and shared literature about it with other teachers at Stone and, since then, she said, “Several of the teachers contacted Susan to bring this wonderful program to our students. Part of what we do in our classes is to provide opportunities for the students to give back to the community.”
Eighth-grader Emerita Ayala worked on a hat at Amanda’s table. “I feel good because I’m not doing it for a project or a grade,” she explained. “I’m doing it because I wanted to and because I like to help people.”
Classmate Daniel Braunstein said it was difficult “to cut the seams because they’re so little; it’s hard to get in there.” But he was glad to take part “because it’ll make kids happy.” Added his twin brother Josh: “It’s fun because I know I’m doing it for a good cause.”
AT ANOTHER TABLE, seventh-graders Lucia Rodriguez, Simardeep Sarkaria and Jennifer Victor sewed bows and pompons onto the hats to decorate them and give them a whimsical touch. Simardeep said she signed up for the event because she likes making things for little children.
Lucia viewed it as a fun activity. “I’m with my friends and I feel good, knowing this’ll help kids,” she said. “And I like to care and volunteer.” Added Jennifer: “I wanted to help people in the hospital.”
The students picked their own fabric. Jennifer used one with a fish pattern, for a boy, and Lucia chose one with an origami print “because it was pretty and I liked the colors — and things that are colorful make people smile.”
Meanwhile, seventh-grader Scott Wardinski stamped the inside of the hats with the Happy HATS logo. He signed up to get community-service hours, but ended up having a good time. “I liked talking with the people at my table and met some new friends,” he said. “I stamped at least 200 hats and had fun while doing it.”
Each student wrote a handwritten message on the tags they attached to each hat. To go with a bright, yellow hat adorned with tiny flowers, Simardeep wrote, “The flowers are blooming just for you.” On one of Lucia’s tags, she wrote, “I made this especially for you so that, when you see it, you will know that people care.” And she drew hearts around her words.
A girl named Valeria wrote, “May this hat make you shine.” Another, named Katie, wrote, “When you wear this hat, it will always bring you a smile.” And Victoria wrote to her recipient, “Hope this hat makes you have a great day.”
Most of the students were in Egbers’ classes, so they came to the workshop already having the skills to do a good job. She had already taught them how to thread a sewing machine, make seams and hems, hand sew and put in zippers and pockets. In addition, Egbers taught them how to follow directions and stay on task, and she was pleased with how well they did during the hats workshop.
“I think it went great,” she said. “They all picked it up quickly because they’d sewn before and already knew how to put things together. I was so proud of my kids; They came in, sat down and got to work right away.”
KHORSAND SAID they worked assembly-line style so they’d learn new skills and team-building. Added her husband and helper, Ali Khorsand: “At the end of the day, they say, ‘We made the hats,’ not ‘I.’ And working on an assembly line teaches them how to cooperate later on in the workplace and to set and achieve goals.”
Susan Khorsand said the students learn problem-solving and productivity, too. Besides that, said Ali, “The engine for their action is compassion. And doing something for others is what we need more of in the world.”
His wife noted that Stanford and University of California studies show that peer support has the greatest impact on hospitalized children — “and this is where we harvest it,” she said. “Doctors and nurses say it helps with the healing process,” said Ali.
Egbers said she hopes the Happy HATS project can be an ongoing one at Stone, not just a one-time thing. “But we need corporate support to fund the supplies,” said Susan. And she’s hoping that businesses interested in increasing their community profile and supporting youth will rise to the occasion. For more information or to help, call her at 703-506-1415. Or see www.glorieshappyhats.org.
Egbers said the workshop was especially meaningful to the students because “they know so many people who have cancer.” And, said Susan, “The kids who make the hats feel connected to the kids for whom they’re making them.” As for Stone’s event, she said, “I’ve done 1,400 workshops with almost 99,000 kids, and these kids were fantastic — productive, task-oriented and dedicated.”
Before the students headed for home, she told them, “You guys did a great job and I’m really proud of you. This is what it takes to succeed in a global world — total teamwork — and you had it.”