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Wrapping the world in warmth
Categories: People, Utrinque Paratus

Grandma RaRa brings blankies to children everywhere

By Leigh E. Rich

President Bush and countless children of all ages around the world are linked by a common thread.

Grandma Ra Ra.

This might not mean much to those who have never heard of this youthful Arvada resident originally from West Virginia, but Grandma Ra Ra nonetheless delivers presents around the world with both the swiftness and silence of dear old St. Nick.

The difference is, however, she does so year round.

And she has no elves to help her crank out the innumerable Grandma Ra Ra blankets she makes for children both close to home and far, far away.

Instead, each blanket is crafted with the aid of a single 30-year-old, garage-sale sewing machine and Grandma Ra Ra’s seemingly endless energy and love.

Fleece on one side and cotton fabrics in all patterns and colors on the other, President Bush was a recent recipient of a Grandma Ra Ra blankie, as she likes to call them. The president’s blanket featured a design with personalized license plates from all 50 states. Grandma Ra Ra gave it to him during his campaign stopover at Red Rocks this October.

Unfortunately, she didn’t get to meet America’s head honcho in person. Campaign staffers took it to Bush in one of the secured backstage rooms. But Grandma Ra Ra attached her personal information in case the Secret Service wondered from whence it came.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s granddaughter, Lauren, has a Grandma Ra Ra blankie, too. So does Attorney General Ken Salazar’s goddaughter.

And little Pete Coors, grandson of the Republican candidate who ran against Salazar for Campbell’s open Senate seat, has a few, “just because he was just so much fun during the campaign,” says Grandma Ra Ra, who was a regular attendee at a multitude of Republican events this election season.

But most of the children who are on the receiving end of the blanket are known to Grandma Ra Ra only via the threads that weave their stories together.

In January, 220 schoolchildren in India will be surprised with Grandma Ra Ra blankies. Since the end of the election, Grandma Ra Ra has been sewing around the clock to make 250 blankets and padded knee mats for students at The Good Shepherd School in Bagadia in the state of Orissa. In 2004, the Cherry Hills Community Church in Greenwood Village adopted the village of Bagadia, building a school and a medical center there and instigating an economic development program.

The Cherry Hills ministry will take the blankets with them on a medical mission in the New Year.Because the schoolroom does not have chairs and the children sit on the floor, Grandma Ra Ra wanted to include padded knee mats with her blankies.

“I call them ‘bottom pads,’” she said, explaining that church members will pack the blankets in early January and are currently checking with the airlines to waive any excess baggage charges.

Another hundred blankets, though not yet made, will be sent to Peru in February via a ministerial group known as Peru Lighthouse.

“I’m going to send as many as I can get done,” promises Grandma Ra Ra, who often sews “a blankie or two or three” in the evenings while she’s juggling other daily tasks. But even a sore wrist doesn’t hamper her goal.

In fact, the goodwill bug may even be catching.

A friend and neighbor, Angela Myhr, bought a sewing machine and has already made several blankets for children in Africa. It was her first attempt at sewing.

And a woman Grandma Ra Ra refers to only as Thomasine, a 78-year-old from Tulsa, tracked her down through Channel 9 News to help make blankets for India.

Such informality is really how the blankie brigade all began, Grandma Ra Ra says, who had long made blankets for friends and family members. Then one day, her boss Cheri Stevenson suggested making a few for a local ministry’s mission to Africa.

In January 2003, the Community Uplift Ministry’s Circle of Light project included Grandma Ra Ra blankies. She has since sent another round to Africa via this route and says with a smile, “I plan on sneaking some more on at some point” during future missions.

But she credits Stevenson with the initial idea of “going international.”

In the two years Grandma Ra Ra has been sending warm blankets and wishes overseas, several have landed in places as disparate as Iraq, China, Vietnam, Ireland, Israel and Australia.

And each handmade blanket is a little different from the next.

“It’s just kind of a feeling you get,” Grandma Ra Ra says, explaining how she selects the variety of fabrics for each creation. “With the other countries, I try to stay with teddy bears, safe things,” always aware of cultural differences.

But her holiday spirit doesn’t stop there. Back at home, Grandma Ra Ra hosts annual Christmas and Easter parties, inviting as many children as she can find—“as many as I can fit in the room, like sardines.”

This time of year, Santa is always in attendance, she explains, with gifts for the kids, and she and Santa even join forces to make personal visits to some children’s homes. Earlier this week, she held her Christmas party at the Denver Zoo, “a little different format” from the previous gatherings she’s hosted over the course of almost 30 years.

And while Grandma Ra Ra seems uncomfortable talking about herself—admitting she gets nervous when it comes to doing interviews—she always has a list of others she would rather mention.

Like Irene Beaugh of Berwick, La., who passed away this Dec. 16. She was the mother of a close friend, Phil Beaugh of Texas, and Grandma Ra Ra refers to her as “Mamma Irene.”

“During a year of my travels I will never forget … her and her husband of 50-plus married years,” she explains. “They opened their home to me for a couple of days … (and) they took me sightseeing around the Bayous. As we were driving, (Irene’s husband) Jean would look back at me and talk, talk, talk and run stop signs. He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, no one is on the streets.’

“Mamma Irene fed me 24-seven. Shrimp gumbo, food, food, food. … I couldn’t eat anymore,” Grandma Ra Ra jokingly reminisces. “I felt the real love from these people who didn’t know me.”

And that seems to be the theme of Grandma Ra Ra’s life, sharing her time, her blankies and her friendship with those she often doesn’t know.

Perhaps her personalized license plate says it best: “JusLivin.”

And like any modern hero, by day Grandma Ra Ra’s alias is Rhonda Wilburn, an employee of CoorsTek, a materials and engineering company headquartered in Colorado. And though a young 47, she is the proud grandmother of six: Alexis and Jordan Billingsly; Jonathan, Mason and Blade Wilburn, and her “little baby girl Riella Curtis.”

When she can, she enjoys rollerblading in her spare time and she admits that “I thought at some point I would get burnt out or bored.”

But instead, she looks at the map of the world she has hanging on a wall.

“If I get tired while I am sewing, I just look up at the world map and think about all of the little children that need blankies.”

And then she thinks, “Oh, I’ve got to do one more.” 

Rich, L. E. (2004, December 24). Wrapping the world in warmth: Grandma RaRa brings blankies to children everywhere. The Colorado Statesman.

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