Nonprofit's handmade caps warm cancer patients' heads, hearts

Christine Fabiani had always enjoyed knitting and crocheting, but she never imagined her hobby would touch hundreds of thousands of cancer patients across the United States.

But that is exactly what Fabiani, a mother of two in Costa Mesa, Calif., has done through her nonprofit Knots of Love, which donates personalized, knitted caps to cancer patients who have lost their hair from chemotherapy treatment. Since the nonprofit’s formation in 2008, about 800 Knots of Love volunteers have donated not only their physical labor, but also their personal funds to cover the costs of the soft yarn used to make the caps, and the packing and shipping costs to mail them to Fabiani, who then sends them to homes and hospitals.

Each week, Knots of Love ships 1,000 items and has donated more than 275,000 caps— including about 200 per week to veterans’ hospitals.

“No one said, ‘No,’” Fabiani recalled when she first contacted local cancer centers with the idea for Knots of Love in late 2007. Fabiani said when people began hearing about Knots of Love, she started to receive caps in the mail. Eventually, she began to teach friends to knit and crochet.

“It was just a charity that was meant to be.”

The threads of Knots of Love
Fabiani spent her early adulthood working as a registered dental assistant, but when her two sons got older, she began dedicating more time to philanthropic work.

At the Adoption Guild of Southern Orange County, Fabiani would knit and crochet blankets for employees and fellow volunteers.  Blankets were easy gifts to make, she said, because her grandmother taught her to knit flat items when she was 6. Fabiani made her first non-flat item, a cap, when her then-21-year-old son requested one. She began giving caps to friends as gifts, and one, who had previously battled breast cancer, suggested she give them to cancer patients to help keep their heads warm after losing their hair.

“It probably wasn’t so close to my heart when I started it— it was just that I was looking for an outlet to use my lifelong skill of knitting and crocheting,” Fabiani said.  “I saw the positive impact that it was making on the cancer patients and how great it made me feel. When I’d walk into a cancer center with a bag of caps, their faces were so sad and forlorn, and when they saw the caps, their faces lit up.”

Today, Knots of Love ships to 560 cancer centers. And Fabiani— who put up $11,000 of her own money to make it an official 501c3 nonprofit in 2008— has expanded the nonprofit’s reach by knitting neonatal blankets for NICU babies, and by teaching youths in lockdown centers for drug and alcohol abuse how to knit as a mode of therapy.

“It teaches these kids that they don’t have to be perfectionists— because most think they have to be,” Fabiani said.

Fabiani spends about 60 hours per week replying to emails from people and medical centers requesting to receive or make caps. She keeps a stock of caps at home that can be mailed immediately, but if she receives a request for a personalized cap, she stays up late to knit and mail the cap as soon as possible. Two percent of the nonprofit’s incoming money— which it receives primarily through private donations— goes toward administrative costs, while 98 percent goes back into the organization, Fabiani said.

Volunteers who donate caps to cancer patients through Knots of Love can find patterns and a list of the types of yarn cancer patients feel is comfortable on the Knots of Love website. They also can find free Knots of Love mailing labels and donation forms that they can fill out and send to Fabiani along with their handmade caps, which come in two styles: sleep caps and daytime caps.

Patty Kelly, 61, of Corona, California, is a Knots of Love volunteer who has knit about 650 caps for cancer patients.

“I found out that something as simple as a little cap can be such a blessing to someone,” Kelly, a secretary for a painting contractor, and a mother of eight, told “[Hair] is something that someone else takes for granted, but [the caps] mean a lot to these people.”

What sets Knots of Love apart from other nonprofits is its contribution to veterans, as well as its mission’s universality, Kelly said. She lost her mother to liver cancer and her sister-in-law, who was only 36, to stomach cancer.

“We’re like every other family— we’ve been affected [by cancer],” Kelly said.

Fabiani tracks where every cap goes, along with who has made them, in an extensive Excel chart on her home computer. That way, volunteers can receive a report of how much they spent on the yarn used to make the caps and receive a tax deduction at the end of each year. The report also helps keep volunteers informed of who receives their handmade caps after the items are donated.

Fabiani explained that while she always knew the caps would help cancer patients, she soon learned the charity had an equal effect on the volunteers who help make the items. That’s because many of the volunteers, like Kelly, have lost loved ones to cancer.

“All these cancer patients have friends all over the country,” Fabiani said.

“Piece of joy”
Fifty-two-year-old Clark Johnson was diagnosed with gastric cancer in March and picked up a couple of caps at the University of Southern California, where he has undergone treatment for what doctors say is an incurable, inoperable form of the disease. He eventually learned Fabiani was a friend of a friend and met her, after which she made him two personalized caps— one that’s green and yellow for the University of Oregon, from where his 24-year-old daughter, Lauren, recently graduated.

“Talk about a cool thing,” Johnson, who works as a consultant in the mortgage industry, and lives in Coto de Caza, California, told about Knots of Love. “You’re extremely cold when you lose all this weight, and there’s a lot of sick people in these treatment centers. What a neat thing to have this piece of joy.”

Michele Longabaugh, of Wichita, Kansas, said she received three caps from her friend Sharon Beavan amid her own battle with stage 4 anal cancer, which began in February 2010. Beavan, whom Longabaugh hadn’t seen for nearly 40 years but had been close in high school with Longabaugh’s older sister, knitted her three personalized caps when she heard about her plight on Facebook. One of her three caps matches the colors for the women’s high school mascot, the Johnson City Wildcats. When 52-year-old Longabaugh wears her caps, she feels “brave and covered.”

“When you have them on, you feel your heart is warmed,” Longabaugh, who works as a field clinical specialist for a pacemaker and defibrillator maker, told

Knots of Love recipients raise awareness of cancer simply by wearing their caps, but volunteers do so as well during the group’s regular fundraising events like virtual 5Ks and so-called yarn-bombing events. For yarn-bombing, volunteers wrap trees and other inanimate objects in yarn to raise awareness of Knots of Love.

Fabiani recalled that at a recent event, a woman approached Fabiani with caps in her hands and told her they were her son’s. Although the woman’s son had passed, she still carried around his caps, she told Fabiani, because they reminded her of him.

The organization has received a wealth of press coverage, and Fabiani has gotten so much praise that the wall of her home office is festooned in award plaques, like Costa Mesa’s Mayor’s Award, which Fabiani received this year, and the Women’s Cancer Research Foundation, which named Fabiani humanitarian of the year in 2009. One of the accolades Fabiani is most proud of is People’s All-Star Award, which she also received in 2009 after President Bill Clinton chose Knots of Love as his favorite charity among 30 winners.

“When we were on national TV, the website crashed,” Fabiani said. “That really put us on the map.”

Today, Fabiani’s organization distributes neonatal blankets to 30 U.S. hospitals— an effort that began in 2013 after a Pennsylvania hospital requested them from Knots of Love. So far, it has donated about 30,000 blankets.

Amid Knots of Love’s growth, Fabiani said she hopes the organization remains small and community-oriented as it continues to touch more lives.

“Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think that [we could donate] 275,000 caps, and all given away free of charge,” she said.

One of the most rewarding aspects of Knots of Love is watching the effect it has on helping to restore patients’ confidence, Fabiani said.

Pam Borek, a Knots of Love caps recipient whose cancer is now in remission, said the caps do just that.

“When you’re sick and down, it just gives you this fire to fight,” she said.