meet along the way: Jo Ann Hahs

Women do incredible things. Here, we feature the stories of women who are a part of the Southeast Missouri community by way of living here, being from here or passing through. We hope these stories inspire you to connect with others and that they encourage you to be who you are in the world. We need you and your unique gifts.

Note: This story was first published in the June 2019 issue of “The Best Years (TBY).”

When Jo Ann Hahs was a child, her mother sewed with a sewing machine that used a treadle. Fascinated by this, Hahs began sewing doll dresses when she was 7. She continued sewing in 4-H where her mother was her leader, and at age 12, won a 4-H district dressmaking competition that moved her on to the state competition.

Now, Hahs uses her lifelong love of sewing by making weighted blankets and lap pads with the Lamplighters, one of five Family and Community Education (FCE) clubs in Cape Girardeau County. The weighted blankets and lap pads serve as a sensory-processing tool for people who have autism, providing additional input when these individuals experience sensory-processing difficulties. The blankets can help improve sleep patterns and transitions between activities, increase focus during extended periods of seated activities and decrease anxiety during times of stress. The FCE clubs donate the blankets to Easterseals Midwest in Cape Girardeau, where they are distributed to those who need them.

Since the project began in 2010, the Lamplighters of Oak Ridge/Daisy, the Cheerful Country Doers of Old Appleton, the Oak Ridge FCE of Oak Ridge/Jackson, Town and Country of Jackson and Cage of Cape Girardeau FCE groups have collectively made and donated more than 900 blankets, more than 400 lap pads and more than 100 snakes to drape around the neck.

“Everybody has a place in their lives that when they do something for somebody else, you get that feeling of gratification,” Hahs says of what she enjoys about being part of the project. “You realize you are helping someone that truly has a need.”

The clubs first heard of the project at the FCE state meeting in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, in the spring of 2010 when a speaker talked about his grandsons who were autistic. A 4-H club from Northwestern Missouri was involved in a similar project and showed the women from the Cape Girardeau County FCE clubs how to make the blankets. The women decided it was a cause and a project they wanted to bring back to Southeast Missouri.

The blankets are 30” across and weigh either 5 or 6 pounds. Six channels are sewn into each blanket, in which one pound of material is stored. The lap pads are comprised of four channels, with 1 pound of rice placed in each channel, taking approximately an hour and 15 minutes to make.

Online, the cost of a weighted blanket begins at $70 and can cost more than $200. Through the FCE clubs and Easterseals, families in Southeast Missouri can receive these blankets at no cost.

Carmen Shrimplin’s family has benefitted from these blankets. Her 9-year-old son was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. Shrimplin did not hear of how weighted blankets could help people with autism until the next year, when an Easterseals employee mentioned the blankets were available. Shrimplin’s son now uses a medium-sized weighted blanket, which she says helps him especially when he is going to sleep.

“It helps calm him,” Shrimplin says. “We use it all the time.”

Shrimplin also volunteers at a special needs vacation Bible school, where weighted blankets have been donated by Easterseals to help students in the centering room, a safe place for the children to go if they are overstimulated. She says the blankets help not only the child, but also the child’s family, and they have been “a blessing to many families” in Cape Girardeau.

The project is helping connect people across the region.

“The partnership we’ve been able to cultivate over the last several years with this incredible organization is a perfect representation of our agency’s purpose, which is to change the way the world defines and views disability by making a profound, positive difference in people’s lives,” says Rachel Masters, director of autism services at Easterseals Midwest in Cape Girardeau. “A free weighted blanket or lap pad may seem like a very small gesture, but for some families, these blankets can truly make a world of difference in the everyday life of their loved one diagnosed with autism. This small tool could help a teen fall asleep with ease, an adult get through a stressful car ride, or a 3-year-old sit and enjoy a book during circle time. The impact is truly priceless for the families we support.”

Sewing the blankets has an effect on the people who are a part of the FCE clubs, too.

“We’ve had clubs in the county 75, 80 years,” Hahs says. “People knew each other, but when you go in and work on a project together, you suddenly learn things about people, and you develop a greater appreciation of who they are. There’s always somebody that is a barrel of fun, and so you spend a lot of time laughing and enjoying each other. So that to me has been one of the best benefits.”


What is FCE?

FCE clubs began as homemakers clubs in Missouri 80 years ago through the University of Missouri Extension Office, designed to inform rural women of what was happening in the world before the prevalence of technology. Now, the clubs are focused on helping communities and educating members about health and living well.

In addition to making weighted blankets, each of Cape Girardeau County’s five FCE clubs volunteer with causes important to them. The Lamplighters, the club Jo Ann Hahs is a part of, have volunteered at Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship, purchased glasses for Oak Ridge students for the solar eclipse and planted flowers at Oak Ridge School. In addition, they take tours in the community and have educational programs for their members, including ones that discuss garden pests, physical and mental health, and raising grandchildren.