When 9-year-old Tori Maghanoy, who has suffered from leukemia since she was 3, put on one of Susan Khorsand’s happy hats, her smile lit up the hospital room. It was Tori’s second such hat. “They make me feel happy,” she says.
To Khorsand, making kids smile is important, and her handmade hats have done that for more than 12,000 hospitalized children, especially those facing long-term stays due to serious illnesses or injury. But it is about more than smiles—for Khorsand, the giver of a hat is as blessed as the child who receives it.
“In our country, when we want to express compassion or caring, when we want to express love, we often go out and buy something and give it as a gift,” Khorsand says. “I wanted to find a way to involve the giver in the thing given.”
She’s done that by using the craft her mother taught her—hat making. In 1997, she and her husband, Ali, launched Glories/Happy Hats Inc., a nonprofit organization in Falls Church, Va., dedicated to making handmade, soft, jester hats for hospitalized children. (Glories takes its name from Susan’s mother, Gloria.)
From the outset, Khorsand knew the project offered more than just a chance to bring a cheerful moment to sick kids. She wanted to empower people, “to show them they can get personally involved with their world,” and what better way than to bring joy to a child. Khorsand, who survived a battle with cancer several years ago, says she knows a child’s loneliness. “I felt it myself, and it was important to me that everyone understand how much support they can bring to children who are critically ill.”
That meant organizing the project as something civic groups, both large and small, could contribute to by making the hats. So, using her own money and criss-crossing the country with a trunk full of materials, Khorsand set about sharing her hat-making skills and taking to others her idea of creating connections.
Starting with local 4-H members, Khorsand began teaching adolescents and adults how to reproduce the basic “happy hat,” individualizing each one with whimsical patterns and materials. She then identified local hospitals and hospices that she linked up with the civic groups so the hat makers could give the hats to children—most of them elementary-school age or younger—enduring protracted hospital stays.
That was six years ago and the idea has spread. So far, she’s taken hat-making workshops to California, Texas, New York, and Missouri, working with such groups as Girl Scouts, Rotary clubs, Kiwanis, and schools.
Khorsand says the key to the project’s success has been the lessons it imparts in the apprentice hat makers. “It’s important to me that people—and especially youngsters who have so much to learn about the world—understand production,” she says. “A gift you make yourself involves you in the caring, it changes the paradigm.”
The sick children, in turn, receive something with far more personal significance than a store-bought gift. “This is a product that’s completely generated by love in the community,” Khorsand says. “Because of what it symbolizes, it means so much to the people.”
Emily Kear, a child life specialist in Falls Church who helps children cope with being in the hospital, says, “It’s very obvious when you give a child a hat and they smile for the first time in a week, or they begin to laugh.”
Katelyn Keefe, a high school senior in Vienna, Va., has participated in the program for the last year and has seen the hats’ effects firsthand.
“When you give it to them, you can see the power of positive thinking,” she says. “It’s almost representative of everyone’s love for that child and their wish the child will survive.”
Kelly Turner, a high school junior in North Arlington, Va., supervises hat-making groups of underprivileged children, many of whom speak little English and struggle with their own problems in school. “It’s really a great experience for me because I can mentor those kids,” she says.
Her mother, Lee Corey, has seen a change in Turner since she began volunteering for the program. “It’s made a huge difference for her,” Corey says. “There’s just no way to describe how rich the experience is.”