Little Hats, Big Hearts raises awareness of congenital birth defects

Florence Chicos started knitting and crocheting when she was just a child. Her mother taught her and her siblings, even her brother. On Saturday, Chicos joined hundreds of other people around the state knitting and crocheting red hats that will be distributed to babies born in Connecticut hospitals in February.

The program that Chicos and nearly a dozen other women at Carriage Green in Milford, a Benchmark assisted living community, were participating in Saturday is called Little Hats, Big Hearts, which celebrates American Heart Month and helps raise awareness for congenital heart defects. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), which organized the program in connection with the Children’s Heart Foundation, congenital heart defects are “the most common type of birth defect in the country.”

Twenty-seven hospitals in Connecticut are participating in the Little Hats program, from Bridgeport Hospital, to Danbury Hospital and Yale New Haven Hospital. Every baby born at one of the hospitals in February will receive one of the little red hats made by volunteers.

In 2018, more than 200,000 hats were distributed through the program.

“Some of the volunteers are personally connected to this program, either having a child who was born with a congenital heart defect or in loving memory of those lost to heart defects and heart disease,” states an AHA press release.

Congenital heart defects are structural problems with the heart present at birth.

“They result when a mishap occurs during heart development soon after conception and often before the mother is aware that she is pregnant,” according to the AHA. “Defects range in severity from simple problems, such as ‘holes’ between chambers of the heart, to very severe malformations, such as complete absence of one or more chambers or valves.”

The ladies knitting and crocheting in Milford Saturday didn’t have personal connections to the cause, but they are accustomed to tapping their skills to help out the community.

Joan Callendrillo, retired preschool director at St. Mary’s School in Milford, sat beside her mother, Marie Montemarano, who lives at Carriage Green.

Callendrillo has knitted hats for babies before, including for Milford’s St. Mary’s Church mission to Haiti program, thanks to a skill taught to her as a child by her aunt.

Doris Quagliani, executive director of Carriage Green, said the residents and staff at Carriage Green often unite for a cause.

“Our mission is to elevate the human connection and keep everyone connected to what matters most,” Quagliani said, “not just as it relates to our own residents, families and associates inside the community but also fostering strong relations outside of the community too.”

Toni Ann McKane, programming director at Carriage Green, said the goal is to create 100 hats by Feb. 1, which will be added to those made at other Benchmark properties, and at all the other locations and households pitching in for the cause.

By about 2 p.m. Saturday, Chicos had made about six hats: Some she knitted, some she crocheted, and she was helping Pauline Boyum, another Carriage Green resident, get started on the hat pattern.

Like Chicos and Boyum, the ladies there have been practicing this craft since they were children. Vera Overchuck, for example, grew up in the Walnut Beach section of Milford. An older woman living there at the time gathered a group of neighborhood girls, then about 10 and 12 years old, and taught them to crochet.

“I thought it would be a nice thing to do in the summer, sitting on the beach,” Overchuck said.

The others told similar stories about learning to knit or crochet from a mother or a loving aunt, and they talked about all the hats, slippers, sweaters and blankets they created over the years.

It’s a relaxing pastime, Overchuck said. She and the others agreed that today it’s even easier to learn, thanks to YouTube.

And with their lifelong skills, most of them could finish a hat in an hour, adding to the effort to raise awareness about congenital heart defects.

The American Heart Association is committed to raising awareness for congenital heart defects, and helping children live stronger lives through education, research and public policies.

“In fact, the organization's funding for pediatric cardiac research is second only to the federal government,” the AHA states.

For more information about the Little Hats, Big Heart program, people can go to

Florence Chicos, left, and Pauline Boyum knit and crochet on Saturday afternoon at Carriage Green in Milford, creating red hats for the Little Hats, Big Hearts program. At right is Lisa Larocca, an intern for Carriage Green, chatting with some of the other knitters.