By Michelle Johnson
Special to The Texas Catholic
Yarn, muslin, hands, love… these are the ingredients of a single, tiny baby cap. For 25 years, 10,000 babies a year have worn these caps, crafted by the women of the Dallas Deanery Council of Catholic Women.
The project began as “Project ABC,” for “Action Based on Caring.” Michele O’Connell, the project’s current coordinator, said that nearly three decades ago, project creators Mary Rakowitz and Lucy Amador wanted to create an act of service that would have the most impact but require little to no expertise. This was so that anyone, of any age or skill level, could participate. Rakowitz and Amador set their sights on the maternity ward at Parkland Hospital, Dallas County’s public hospital. Parkland’s maternity ward is quite the busy place. In fact, one in 250 babies born in the U.S. each year is born at Parkland. It was the ideal place to launch Project ABC.
“They need all the help they can get. It’s the county hospital and they have the most babies born down there,” said O’Connell, vice president of the Saint Paul the Apostle Parish Women’s Group. “You can come from anywhere, walk in, and you can get your baby born there. It serves a lot of the poorest communities, and they’re not in the hospital that long. But this helps to keep the babies’ temperature regulated until they get old enough to do it on their own.”
According to a July, 2021, article in “Pediatrics,” the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, hats are routinely used in the delivery room to reduce heat loss in newborns. Some studies have shown that a cotton-wool material can reduce heat loss by an average of nearly 20 percent. O’Connell said that a simple roll of tubular cotton stockinette has proven the ideal textile for the baby cap project. A standard nine-inch length is cut, cuffed at the bottom, and tied with yarn at the top, making the perfect little cap for protecting tiny heads. The material is readily available, inexpensive, simple to work with, and produces 90 to 95 baby caps per roll.
While the stocking portion of the cap is the same for every cap as it was 25 years ago, some of the women impart their own flair in the yarn ties. Blue and pink are most common, but yellows and greens show up on occasion, as does a pom-pom tie or a three-yarn bow. O’Connell said the variations in the ties reflect the varied women whose hands these little caps have passed through over the decades. Women’s groups from parishes across Dallas County have made the project their own. Women’s Guilds and Catholic Daughters groups in Lancaster, Farmers Branch, Richardson, and Mesquite all work directly with O’Connell to produce the caps. “I took 2000 baby caps to Parkland in July,” said O’Connell.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the flexibility of the baby cap program that was germane from the day it was started became quite a beautiful thing. The program and its women volunteers changed their logistics, location and protocols, but the program didn’t suffer. The materials did not fall prey to any textile shortage, volunteers remained in abundance and had even more time on their hands, and there was certainly no slow-down of babies in need.
The flexibility that allowed the program to continue during a pandemic environment is also what makes it a great choice for parochial school students who need to meet service hour requirements, for the infirm who are limited in their ability to get out but want to fulfill a desire to give back, and for anyone looking for a volunteer opportunity they can do from their home or local church group.
“We all pay taxes to Parkland Hospital along with our local taxes,” O’Connell said. “If we didn’t provide these baby caps, Parkland would have to buy them, and that cost would be passed on to the taxpayer. So, everyone benefits.”
The program volunteers meet as often as once a month or every three months, depending on their group’s schedule and availability. Saint Paul the Apostle’s baby caps team meets at least three or four times a year. But O’Connell said that among the elements each group has in common is the social aspect of the cap circle. The women sit around a table, raw materials neatly organized in the middle, fingers flying nearly as quickly as the conversation.
“It’s a chance for us to catch up on each other’s lives,” said O’Connell. The program nurtures the existing camaraderie for some groups and helps build it for others, all while creating tiny caps of care, love and safety for 10,000 babies each year.
“It’s a small thing that you can do,” said “O’Connell. “I’m actually just the coordinator. It’s very simple. It’s constantly happening. I’m always getting some, taking some, and Parkland is so happy.”