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April 4, 2013

Hearts of hope crafted to help people cope

By Cathy B. Koplen
Cooperstown Crier

---- — More than 2,000 brightly painted hearts, each containing a message of hope, have been delivered to the grieving community of Newtown, Conn.

The hearts, many painted by Cooperstown residents, include brightly painted words of hope, peace and promise. Some are intricately patterned designs and others feature paintings of flowers, birds or stars. The first delivery of 1,000 hearts was received by Newtown residents on Valentine’s Day. A second gift of another 1,000 hearts was delivered on April 1.

Hearts of Hope, an outreach program, coordinated by Judith Pedersen, is a craft project that includes a kiln-fires heart, a gift bag and a card with room for a message from the artist. Each heart is to be individually painted and sent back to Pedersen — who will send the hearts to the recipients.

“This is something, that as a community, it is manageable and portable,” Pedersen said. “Everyone has known someone who has been impacted by this kind of grief. We have all been there at some level.”

The hearts are painted by community groups, including various church and library groups, Girl Scouts and Leos, a junior Lions Club organization. Many of the hearts bound for Newtown were painted by area residents, State University of New York students, Macy’s employees and those who work for New York Life Insurance Company.

“It is really therapeutic for me,” said Emmy Dolan, 15, of Cooperstown, who is the committee chairwoman for the Leo group of high school students. “The first time I did this was for Pathfinder Village. When they opened the hearts – to see their faces light up - it was just really sweet.”

Any group may order the Hearts of Hope kits. The kit includes an unpainted, fired heart wrapped to prevent breaking, instructions, a gift bag, a registry and a card upon which the giver may write a note. The kits are $3 per heart – which includes the kit and return postage.

“I run the volunteer center on (the State University College at Oneonta) campus and I have been able to connect a lot of volunteers,” said Linda Drake, executive director of Center for Social Responsibility and Community at SUNY Oneonta.

The identity of the artists is protected as they are instructed to sign only a first name. Recipients of the hearts who wish to write a thank you note may send an email with a code that is attached to the gift. Organizers at Hearts of Hope will then forward the email to the person who sent the gift.

“Sometimes we have a problem with people following the instructions,” Pedersen said. “Sometimes they put their last name on the card and we have to remove it. We also ask that they not put any religious or political statements on the cards.

“These hearts that are going to Newtown, for instance, we don’t want anti-gun messages or Jesus messages. We do not in any way want to offend anyone. This is about the victims, about giving them comfort and hope.”

The first gift of community painted hearts organized by Pedersen was delivered to New York City emergency responders after the attacks on 9/11. Pedersen said the idea to offer the hearts came out of grief counseling.

“I started out as a hospice worker,” Pedersen said. “I met the art therapists and they seemed to be so helpful. I started bringing a piece of clay into the group discussions. People would be rolling the clay around in their hands, not really making eye contact, and they seemed to be able to talk more easily. They were into the tactile — the feeling of the clay and what they were making – not really concentrating on what they were saying. It seemed easier for people to talk when their hands were occupied.”

Pedersen had been working with the bereaved in 1998 at Lourdes Hospice in New York. After the attacks on 9/11, Pedersen says, she felt she needed to find a way for the community to express gratitude to the responders — as well as a shared sympathy and horror for what the country endured in the days after the attack.

“This idea came out of that,” Pedersen said. “There was a feeling of wanting to do something. In the space of four hours, 700 people came out and painted a heart for 9/11.”

Pedersen manages most of the business of creating, organizing and sending the hearts to recipients in her Cooperstown home. She begins with a 25-pound block of clay. After using a wire to slice off a slab about a half an inch thick, she sends it through a roller and then smooths the surface of the clay with a squeegee. Using a standard, heart-shaped cookie cutter, she cuts the hearts and moves them to a sunny window. After drying for a day the hearts will be fired.

“And then we have to assemble them into kits,” Pedersen said. “You can see there is a lot for our volunteers to do.”