Valley Head High School Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) students recently reached their Prayer Pocket Pillow project goal.

The project began six years ago in memory of Ryleigh Whittles, a "precious little girl" who lost her fight at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger.

The Prayer Pocket Pillow consists of small 8.5x11 pillows featuring a prayer pocket that houses a handwritten, encouraging message from a student.

VHS FCCLA Advisor and FCS Teacher Barbara Neel said the project was created to help students learn to use a paper pattern allowing them to not only learn to develop something usable, but also learn valuable sewing skills needed to complete it.

Neel said the original design was that of a standard-type pillow. However, later on, she incorporated the pocket allowing the students to utilize more sewing skills.

"From the basic pillow, came the Prayer Pocket Pillow that required more skills to complete," she said. "These small pillows have been sent overseas to numerous children's hospitals and nursing homes."

The pillows, although small, are just the right size for a person's head to comfortably rest on.

A total of 65 students participated in the project, which is not only limited to pillows. Neel said the students also sew blankets, and so far, have completed 50 in addition to the 100 pillows.

"They will continue to sew until Ryleigh’s birthday when her mom and dad will take all donated items to celebrate the precious life of this little girl," she said. The items are donated to T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

An important takeaway for students Neel said is to learn to serve others even when they don't know them and expect nothing in return.

"Sometimes, we just need something to hold on to," she said. "COVID-19 put a damper on our pillow making for the last two years, but this year, we are VHS-FCS strong and our goal was to complete at least 100 Prayer Pocket pillows to donate."

The students also learn the importance of quality over quantity and putting forth their best efforts to bring joy to others and take pride in their work.

"I am very pro-community service and my students have been a vital part of this effort," Neel said. "I am very proud of them and their willingness to serve in this manner."

Neel has been an educator at VHS for the past seven years and previously also taught fourth grade. She has taught at Ider High School and Pelham High School in Birmingham, where she was instrumental in opening the new Hospitality and Tourism Department.

During her time in Birmingham, her class pillow project items were donated to the Salvation Army for the homeless community or for families who needed basics.

"These small pillows have been spotted under the arm of homeless people on park benches, walking down the road, etc.," Neel said.

Each year, Neel said students look forward to the Prayer Pocket Pillow project, which has sparked an interest in sewing for many.

"I've had many parents reach out to me because their children asked for sewing machines for Christmas," she said. "Sewing is such an interesting and rewarding effort for students to learn. It's something they can utilize for the rest of their lives."

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