Weighted blankets provide language skills and jobs to immigrants, restful nights to the anxious.
Drive up to the headquarters of Weighting Comforts, and you could be in Anytown, USA. The small corporate office complex in South Nashville is indistinguishable from neighboring buildings and gives no hint of the activity inside.
But enter the office of Donna Durham, Weighting Comforts founder and president, and take a seat. Durham will arrange one of her signature weighted blankets around you, and sure enough, as the cool fabric sifts around you, you'll feel like you're home, wherever that may be: the bedroom you grew up in, the loft at your beloved grandmother’s house.
That feeling is what Durham, who has a masters degree in marriage and family counseling, aims to bring to all who purchase a Weighting Comforts blanket: a night of peaceful sleep, free from anxiety. But that’s just one part of her story.
In the beginning, there was Durham, a college home economics major and mother of four. The Durham family moved home to Nashville in 2011 after living in Iowa, where Donna’s husband, Jamie, was teaching.
While she was in her final semester of graduate school for counseling at Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University in 2014, her advisor asked her to make weighted blankets for all the student offices.
“She knew about my background in Home Ec,” Durham says. “It was amazing to see someone very anxious not be able to sit still and then put a weighted blanket on them. It was part of a tool chest of self-care.”
Weighted blankets have recently become popular for people who have trouble sleeping, especially those with anxiety, PTSD or autism. Medical writers say the blankets, which are filled with evenly distributed weights, provide users the same tactile feeling as getting a hug. Researchers also say the blankets produce the release of serotonin, a chemical that reduces anxiety and improves mood, as well as melatonin, which promotes sleep and regulates the sleep cycle.
Soon, friends were asking Durham for their own. “My son, Josh, said, ‘I think you have something here’” and built our Facebook page and website,” Durham says. She had two orders within the first minute.
She began the business by hand-sewing blankets, meeting customers at fabric stores where they could select the fabric they wanted. But the demand became too much for one person to handle, and Durham enlisted family members, even paying neighbors’ children to help her box and ship the blankets during Christmas.
Enter Rita Atkins and Sew for Hope. In early 2015, one of Durham’s friends suggested she reach out to Sew for Hope, a non-profit started by Christ Presbyterian Church members to teach sewing skills to refugees and immigrants to the Middle Tennessee area.
On April 2, 2015, Durham met several Sew for Hope graduates at the Thrift Smart store on Nolensville Road, teaching them how to make one of her blankets. For two years, every week, Durham met her sewing group in the Thrift Smart parking lot, exchanging raw materials for finished products.
Weighting Comforts’ first employee was a woman named Anwar, an immigrant from Iraq who was a physics and mathematics major in her home country. Anwar, who remains the senior staff member in the Weighting Comforts manufacturing facility, spoke gently to Durham one day.
“I know 10 women who need work,” says Anwar, a tall woman with a ready smile. “I know a widow from Syria with four children who doesn’t want to be on food stamps: She wants to be able to earn a living.”
Fast forward to June 2018. Weighting Comforts has 30 full-time employees, many of whom are seamstresses who came to the company through Sew For Hope. They churn out more than 100 blankets per day, each taking about 45 minutes to complete.
Employees come from all over — from besieged Myanmar, from Iraq and Iran, from South America, from Tennessee. The Weighting Comforts’ office manager is a veteran of the Iraq War who graduated from Belmont University’s Entrepreneurship Program: He speaks a little bit of Arabic and has a cultural understanding of the women in the sewing room.
Weighting Comforts also offer English as a Second Language classes one night a week to its employees, most of whom are women. A brightly colored map in the ESL room has push pins and thread that connect each country of origin to photographs of the company’s employees. “We want to provide a safe place to learn English; we want this to be a stepping stone,” Durham says, pointing out that religion prohibits many of the women from working side by side with men.
All segments of the manufacturing process are handled within the Weighting Comforts facility: measuring the PVC beads — blankets come in different weights and have a different colored measuring cup for the amount of beads needed for each; stitching the beads inside the quilted-looking blankets; quality control; packaging and fulfillment.
Durham credits many with the success of her still-new company: her son, Josh, Weighting Comforts’ CEO (“he’s a genius,” says his proud mother) and marketing guru, Rita Atkins with Sew For Hope, Anwar and the women who sew, and finally, her own faith. “Faith is important,” she says simply. “This has been a life-changing experience.”
Life-changing for her, yes, but also for everyone touched by her process: the women who learn English and find employment through Weighting Comforts and the blanket buyers who find peaceful rest. For more information on Weighting Comforts' blankets, go to weightingcomforts.com.
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