A Blanket Statement: On MLK Day, Crete Elementary goes all in on service

A Blanket Statement: On MLK Day, Crete Elementary goes all in on service

By Tyler Dahlgren

Grinning from ear to ear, they march down the hallway on a beeline to the gymnasium, freshly-tied blankets in tow.

Preschoolers, kindergartners, first and second graders, short in stature, but towering in pride.

The tie-blankets, well over a hundred of them, form a mountain on the gym floor before they’re loaded onto a bus and shipped to Crete Middle School, whose gymnasium is large enough to accommodate the elementary school’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Ceremony.

From there, the blankets are sent everywhere and anywhere that they could be of use. Crete Fire and Rescue, the Crete Hospital, Peoples City Mission, Centennial Terrace, area churches, etc.

“The assembly is a striking sight,” said Ellen Miller, Crete Elementary School’s after-school program coordinator.

The assembly is neat, there's no doubt about it, but since the project started in 2012, the march before the gathering has been Miller’s favorite part.

“They come marching down the hall carrying their blankets like a team,” she said. “When they get down there, I say ‘You are just so big! Look at you, you can make a blanket!' And they smile or laugh and look back at me like ‘Can you believe it!?’”

Crete Elementary is a big school, with over 600 students, and it used to be even bigger before the opening of Crete Intermediate moved the third and fourth graders to a new building. For the first couple of years, the MLK Day ceremony was held at the elementary, but it quickly outgrew those digs.

A canned food drive coincides with the blanket project. With so many moving parts, coordination is important.

“You should see 600 of us load the bus with the blankets at the same time,” jokes Crete Elementary Principal Heather Wendelin.

Fundraising for materials starts in November. Cardinal Nest, the afterschool program, is known to get creative in coming up with ways to raise funds. Selling popcorn is their cash cow. They bake cookies and paint pine cones and market them as Christmas decorations.

“Around here, if you are a teacher and you spend a little money you can wear jeans, and the Cardinal Nest kids make these passes that are supposed to look like a fleece blanket, and we sell those passes to teachers,” Miller, who has worked in Crete Public Schools for 25 years, said.

The intermediate school-3rd, 4th and 5th grade-picked up the project in its first year. Together, and with the help of about 60 Doane College students, the two schools tied 267 blankets. In seven years, the Crete kids have provided more than a thousand blankets to the homeless and those in need, an eye-opening figure and a source of pride for the school.

“Yes, we have little kids, but they can make a difference and they showed ownership and the same amount of pride that any other student would have,” Wendelin said. “I was a little surprised by that.”

And they know how important community support has been to the venture, which was started when University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate student Matt Gonzalez approached the district with the idea for a community development project. UNO’s Community Development Department bought each student a t-shirt that first year.

Since 2013, Doane University has been the elementary school’s biggest partner, providing t-shirts and volunteers. In January, Doane sent its baseball and track and field teams to assist with the tying. Two Tigers in each classroom. The university also donated money to the intermediate school to help purchase fleece.

“Doane has been huge,” Miller said. “And, of course, little kids just love the big kids, so they really enjoy that interaction.”

Teachers see that the project is a big deal to kids. They see its worth and, in turn, make MLK Day a priority. Staff shows up in droves to cut tabs before the day of service. They’ve also tried to come up with other ways to stress the importance of service to others.

“It is kind of branching out,” Wendelin said. “We have a lot of classrooms that, around that time, will focus more on kindness. They will hang little envelopes in the hallways and write kind messages to one another or to the lunch ladies. They will leave notes on the custodians’ doors. They make placemats or send craft projects to the nursing home up the hill. We are always trying to find ways to expand on that message.”

In addition to the blankets, Crete Elementary students came up with over 1,500 canned food items. With more than half the school on a free or reduced lunch plan, that figure takes on a whole new level of selflessness.

“We know we are little, but if we all contribute a little, we put it together and this is what we can accomplish as a whole,” Wendelin said. “That’s really what we are trying to instill in our kids.”

Cardinal Nest kids also work hard on the Toys for Tots campaign, and take part in the Great American Cleanup in the spring.

“Their blossoming is of so much value to us,” Miller, who will be retiring at the end of the school year, said. “Doing something that is of benefit to someone else, that’s right up there with math and reading. Humans do better if they are giving. Our kids get a chance to learn that, practice it, and they see the importance of it.”

With Miller enjoying retirement, there will be a rather large void to be filled.

“Somebody is going to have to carry the torch,” Wendelin said.

Who knows, Miller hints, perhaps she’ll be back to cut a few tabs.

“She’ll be here cutting tabs,” Wendelin laughs.

Crete Elementary is a big school, filled with even bigger-hearted kids and a caring and committed staff.

“We just do what is right for kids,” Wendelin said. “And how can you go wrong with that?”

Together, with a little help from the community, they’re making a heartwarming difference.