Mackenzie Martin, 17, a junior at Detroit Country Day School, always enjoyed sewing with her grandmothers. She and her younger sister Kate picked up the hobby at an early age and it was commonplace to come home after school and work on sewing projects like making doll's clothing or small accessories.
One chilly afternoon in November of 2016, while walking around downtown Royal Oak, the sisters spotted a homeless man. They went home and returned, bringing him a homemade lunch. It got them thinking of other ways to help the homeless, especially during Michigan's long cold winters. It was that instance that hatched their charitable project, MK Blanket Wraps.
Now nearing a 1,000-blanket milestone, the sisters have not only designed, sewn and distributed colorful and functional blankets to the homeless, they also teach sewing classes at local homeless shelters in the summer.
In recognition of creating MK Blanket Wraps, Martin recently received the 2020 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards Distinguished Finalist Award. Created in 1995 by Prudential and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the awards program is the country's largest and is based exclusively on volunteer community service. It recognizes students for outstanding service to others at the local, state and national levels.
The sisters thoughtfully designed the poncho-like blankets for the homeless, who need to keep warm outside while keeping their possessions with them. The blankets feature several large interior and exterior pockets and have necklines large enough to slip over bulky outer garments.
Once they assembled several of them, the Martins contacted Genesis House, a women's and children's homeless shelter. According to Martin, the women residents there not only wanted to use the blankets, but also wanted to learn how to make them. For the last two years, the sisters have taught the class twice a week, and even had an eight-session class over that first summer, complete with a graduation ceremony where each sewing student received a certificate for learning a skill that may help them earn a living.
Martin said she learned much from the women about what is on the mind of people who deal with homelessness, trauma, and instability while they try to rebuild their lives. This summer, MK Blanket Wraps will teach a sewing class at Hope Against Trafficking, a human trafficking rescue program for women in Pontiac.
"The first thing that is on everyone's mind (when they are living in a shelter) is waiting to get Section VIII affordable housing," Martin said. "And the one thing they said they wanted their first purchases for their new home was to be able to buy a sewing machine."
To raise money for all that fleece, MK Blankets teamed up with Stagecrafters to produce a children's play on the Baldwin Stage in late February.
As she sets her sights on the end of high school, college, and beyond, Mackenzie said she plans to continue to help others throughout her life and is considering a future in either teaching or non-profit work.
"By creating this sewing class, I have learned so much what it is to teach another person and how it can make a difference in somebody else's life. I watched people come to my class in a sad or bad mood but leave the class smiling and happy. Sewing and designing will always be a hobby for me, but I plan to work in the future in some way that will deal with helping and improving the lives of others."
Photo: Laurie Tennent