Quilts for shelter animals

How one woman and her dog led to a unique organization that makes quilts to ensure shelter dogs and cats stay warm, comfy and happy.

Eileen Smulson thought she had a full life. She had a loving husband and was juggling various successful careers, teaching grade school, working for major nonprofit agencies and running her own business. She didn’t realize something was missing and that a stray dog named Ginger would transform her from someone who never gave a thought to animals into a conduit for bringing comfort to thousands of shelter-bound dogs and cats.

“She had a serious career, and I thought she needed an outlet,” says Eileen’s husband, Brad. “Animals are good for that, and also for personal growth.” Brad saw an opportunity to introduce his wife to animals in 2003 when the California couple ran across a rescue group offering Ginger, a six-month-old pup who’d been found on a hot desert freeway.

Eileen felt no connection to the dog, but the rescuers invited her and Brad to take her home and give her a try. “Within two days she was sleeping in the bed with us,” Brad laughs.

A bond forms

Eileen still needed time to bond with Ginger. “It was an evolutionary process,” Brad explains. “She took Ginger for six training classes that were eight weeks each. They also did dancing with dogs and outdoor agility. She then went on to train Ginger as a therapy dog and they became certified pet therapy partners.” Eileen and Ginger also joined a program called READ (Reading Assistance Education Dog) for kids in schools and libraries.

Like everything else in her life, Eileen was approaching dog guardianship at full throttle, and in the process, the little mutt from the freeway finally opened her heart to animals. In 2008, Eileen’s life took another turn that was to have a positive impact on countless more dogs and cats. She visited a Los Angeles animal shelter and noticed the dogs lying on cold cement floors. “Shelters provide food, water and housing, but they don’t have budgets for comfort items,” she says. “The animals are on hard floors, concrete, wire or newspaper.”

Eileen immediately sprang into action, spearheading a blanket and towel drive so that each dog and cat would have a warm, soft place to curl up. Operation Blankets of Love was born.

Although the main purpose of the organization is to provide comfort to animals, Eileen soon realized she was also helping save lives. “When you put an animal in a strange environment, he’s often nervous and depressed,” she explains. “Some sit there shaking. They don’t look attractive to potential adopters. As soon as you put in soft bedding or a blanket, they sniff it and snuggle into it. They have something of their own, and it makes them happier and more secure. Potential adopters see them cuddled up or wagging tails in something that looks like a home environment, and they get adopted more quickly. That saves two lives, because now there’s space for another animal that might have been euthanized because the shelter was full.”

Hitting the news

Eileen’s initial efforts snowballed as people heard about her work. Local newspaper articles lead to national magazine stories and eventually to television coverage. She parlayed the publicity into more opportunities to collect and distribute goods. Drawing on her teaching experience, Eileen combined blanket drives with humane education. She teaches youngsters from grade school through high school about responsible animal care and treatment. Then she helps them run their own blanket drives.

“They do everything, from deciding how to get donations to making posters and flyers,” Eileen says. “They learn about marketing and interpersonal skills.”

Eileen also helps to build empathy in children. “We take a trip to a shelter, and I show them the dogs on cement floors and ask them, ‘How do you think the animal feels? What do you think it’s like to be lost or stray and come to a shelter?’” The kids then get to hand out the blankets and see the difference a bit of kindness makes

Supply line

Blankets and towels remain the organization’s mainstay, but Operation Blankets of Love has expanded to include other dog and cat supplies like food, treats, leashes, carriers and even cat trees. “We’re like the American Red Cross of the animal rescue world,” Eileen jokes. The organization is currently supplying comfort items to shelters all over California, from San Diego to Bakersfield. They help 1,000 animals every month, and although their main focus is dogs and cats, they’ve also assisted horses, rabbits and even pot-bellied pigs.

“The supplies are very important,” Eileen says. “When we give rescue groups food or carriers or other things they need, they can use their money for other things like veterinary care for a sick animal that might otherwise be euthanized.”

Operation Blankets of Love is a non-profit organization that runs on a shoestring and has no other staff apart from Eileen and Brad – and of course Ginger, who is the mascot and assists with public relations. Yet the organization has grown at what Brad calls “lightning speed”.

Going national

The couple’s efforts recently look a giant leap forward when the group was featured on Animal Planet’s popular pit bull rescue series Pit Boss. The show’s stars, Shorty and his crew, helped out with a blanket drive and joined Eileen to deliver blankets, toys and other items to shelter animals and a unique homeless shelter that allows residents to bring their companion animals. Brad says the show inspired calls from across the country, from people of all ages.

Eileen is now working on a guidebook based on her organization and hopes to eventually have affiliated groups throughout the country. Meanwhile, she continues to expand her collection points and tie them in with adoption programs whenever possible. “It’s all about saving animals,” she says. To set up adoption events, she works with places ranging from small farmers’ markets to national chains like Walgreens. She also helps groups that transport small dogs from overcrowded shelters to parts of the country where they are in demand.

“Every day brings us incredible happiness,” says Brad. “It’s amazing to see what one woman and one dog have accomplished. We want it to be a preamble that inspires people across the whole country. We strongly believe that adoption is the best option.”


Barb Nefer is an Orlando-based freelance writer specializing in travel, pets, and personal finance.