The blanket giveaways started as a project to help with the grief of losing his baby sister.
When C.J. was 5, his mother, Kristen Wright Matthews, tragically lost her baby during pregnancy. The youngster had difficulty dealing with the loss, so his mom suggested they do something to help others.
Earlier in life, Matthews had immersed herself in philanthropy following an accident with a drunk driver. It helped her to recover emotionally, and she knew it could also help her son with his grief.
“When I saw him hurting, I thought back to what made me feel better,” Matthews said. “It touched me that he had that same giving spirit. He was all in, and he was only 5.”
Because C.J. liked cuddling in blankets – it made him feel safe and comfortable – he wanted to give them to other kids going through tough times.
C.J. enjoyed the work so much that they turned the project into a charitable organization.
Showing kindness was as therapeutic for C.J. as it was for those he was helping.
“It was helping me cope, but it was also helping other people, and I was helping them feel good, too,” the teen said.
Blankies 4 My Buddies grew with C.J., an Eagles Landing Christian Academy sophomore. His 7-year-old brother, Kollin, a second-grader, is also fully involved with the nonprofit. Their mother handles much of the public relations, finances, and grant writing. And their father, Chris Sr., works on events.
“It’s really a blessing to see that my boys love giving back and helping other people,” Matthews said. “As a parent, you want your kids to be part of the solution – and not the problem.”
Blankies 4 My Buddies has partnered with other charities to expand deliveries and grow nationally. They’ve had blanket drop-offs in cities such as Chicago, Denver, Charleston, Los Angeles and New York.
In Atlanta, their blankets have helped thousands. They’ve provided blankets for children in crisis and senior adults at Christian City, a residential community south of Atlanta. CEO Keith Horton said a blanket is a gift that expresses “a love that warms the soul and helps with the sadness.”
“C.J.’s empathy is an amazing gift, and his remarkable stick-to-it focus is rare,” Horton said. “Over several years, Blankies 4 My Buddies donations have given kindness to all our residents, whether they are vulnerable youth living in our Children’s Village group homes or our Safe Place Runaway shelter, or an elderly resident of our retirement community.”
At the Shaquille O’Neal Boys & Girls Club of Henry County, former executive director Jesse Coltrane said the nonprofit worked with teen leaders to make blankets and donate them to people experiencing homelessness and children in foster care.
The youth “were able to give back to their community and see their unique designs on display,” Coltrane said.
The Matthews brothers are also members of Giving Tuesday Spark, a youth-led movement inspiring kids to take action on the causes they care about on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. This year, Kollin is collecting socks to give away. Last year, he gathered 2,022 pairs and delivered them to orphanages and shelters.
C.J. will host a blanket-making workshop on Giving Tuesday, with the blankets going to children with cancer. He asks that others take this day – Nov. 28 – to serve those in need or send a financial donation.
Last year, C.J. was named a Prudential Emerging Visionary – he was the youngest of 25 young leaders, ages 14-18, recognized nationwide for innovative solutions to challenges in their communities. He used the $5,000 award to create the Blanket Box Project – starter kits filled with materials to make two blankets to donate. Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities is a regular recipient of these #GiveLikeCJ kits.
The teen is also a published author. His book, “And Then There Was One,” tells how he moved through grief and empowers youth with tools toward healing and finding their own purpose.
When C.J. isn’t working with the blankets, he’s a regular teenager. He plays on his high school football and wrestling teams and is interested in occupational therapy and sports medicine as a future career.
C.J. doesn’t foresee stepping out of the nonprofit after high school — instead, he leans in, encouraging others to use the thing they love to help others.
“What began as a small project to help me cope has become a lifestyle for me and my family,” C.J. said. “It’s not just something that’s helping me cope with the loss of my little sister anymore; it’s way bigger than that.
“Blankies 4 My Buddies is impacting other people’s lives on a high scale. We turned our test into a testimony and our goal is to keep helping and inspiring.”
HOW TO HELP
Blankies 4 My Buddies will soon host its 7th annual Giving Bowl Charitable Football Game and Community Event, with the date and location yet to be determined. The youth football game will include a combination blanket drive and food giveaway. New and gently used children’s blankets will be collected. Food boxes are provided by Feeding Georgia Families. For more information: blankies4mybuddies.org.