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College students bring warm blankets, helping hands to Amherst homeless shelter

  • Nicole Owen, from left, Sarah Kristy and Odessa Burkett deliver blankets they made to the cot shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst Monday. The box contains tolietries they donated.

    Nicole Owen, from left, Sarah Kristy and Odessa Burkett deliver blankets they made to the cot shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst Monday. The box contains tolietries they donated. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nicole Owen, left, Sarah Kristy and Odessa Burkett deliver blankets they made to the homeless shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst Monday. The box contains tolietries they donated.

    Nicole Owen, left, Sarah Kristy and Odessa Burkett deliver blankets they made to the homeless shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst Monday. The box contains tolietries they donated. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nicole Owen, from left, Sarah Kristy and Odessa Burkett deliver blankets they made to the cot shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst Monday. The box contains tolietries they donated.
  • Nicole Owen, left, Sarah Kristy and Odessa Burkett deliver blankets they made to the homeless shelter at First Baptist Church in Amherst Monday. The box contains tolietries they donated.

Just minutes after three University of Massachusetts students arrived at the Craig’s Place homeless shelter in Amherst bearing handmade blankets, a guest asked if he could take one.

“It is very nice,” said Robert Martinez with a smile. “This will keep me warm.”

The student-made “blankets of love,” as they are known, were dropped off Monday night at the shelter, based at the First Baptist Church, by seniors Odessa Burkett and Nicole Owen and junior Sarah Kristy. The three are student life coordinators for Off-Campus Student Services at UMass.

In addition, Amherst College students were staffing the sign-in desk and two UMass freshmen showed up with toiletries and other supplies they had collected in their dormitory.

“College students are the bread and butter of our volunteers,” said manager Rebekah Wilder.

Students made the blankets of love last month at an Off-Campus Student Services event known as Winterfest, which drew about 50 UMass students. Winterfest, which included children and students paired up through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, also offered cookie decorating and information about preparing for winter.

Owen said she got the idea for the blanket-making after talking to the Rev. Steven Wilco, the pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Amherst, who suggested the homeless shelter could benefit from student volunteer efforts.

She purchased $60 worth of material at the Jo-ann Fabric and Craft Store in Hadley to make the blankets which are each crafted from two sheets of fleece layered together and tied by strips of the same fabric.

In addition to the blankets, Owen, Burkett and Kristy brought a case of “Ready U” kits to the shelter. They include mouthwash, toothpicks, detergent and other personal care products.

The women also helped clean up following the nightly meal, which was served to 18 guests.

Kevin Noonan, executive director of Craig’s Doors, the nonprofit agency that runs the shelter, said the assistance showcases the good things students are doing in the community. Shelter guests, he said, appreciate gifts such as the blankets. “These mean warmth and love,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the sign-in desk, Amherst College sophomores Christine Miranda and Felin Martinez welcomed guests.

Miranda said she started volunteering at the shelter about a year ago. “What I enjoy is getting out of the Amherst (College) bubble,” she said of her weekly visits.

Martinez, who began volunteering more recently, said she has primarily been helping prepare meals and wash dishes. She adds that she is happy to do whatever she is asked.

“It’s good to come and help in the smallest way possible,” she said. “It’s good to remember the people out there.”

UMass freshmen Brandon Sides and Rebecca Schmidt also showed up Monday night as the result of an “adopt-a-cause” component of their course in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. The class has been examining the “feminization” of poverty: increasing numbers of young mothers who are poor and homeless, they said.

Town officials agreed to let Craig’s Place add more beds for women this fall. Five of the six beds reserved for women were occupied Monday night.

Sides and Schmidt brought items they gathered by going door-to-door in their dormitory, Webster. The donations included toiletries, boots and a first aid kit.

“The main part of the project is collecting supplies and informing our living area about this and the feminization of poverty,” Sides said. “It’s about ways to alleviate that issue on a local level.”

“These students truly went out of their way to try to make the lives of the members of Craig’s Doors a little better by providing them with items listed on their wish list,” said Alanna Connell, the undergraduate teaching apprentice for women’s studies.

Schmidt said shelter guests began using the donated supplies immediately.

“I’m glad to know we could have some impact and some people will benefit from this,” she said.

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