Animals have taken over Irene Kilstrom’s living room — stuffed bears and monkeys, floppy-eared dogs and ducks, a penguin, a piggy and a lion or two occupy every square inch of seating.
But over the coming days, the members of this happy menagerie will find new homes with San Luis Obispo County youngsters in need of some TLC.
Kilstrom, the volunteer director of Project Sweet Dreams, distributes the stuffed animals, along with color-coordinated blankets and pillows, to children staying at the homeless shelter in San Luis Obispo. Other nonprofits that serve children in need, including CASA — the advocacy program for abused and neglected children who are under court jurisdiction, also receive some of the “bundles of love” to distribute to their young clients.
Kilstrom, a 65-year-old retired nurse, began a Project Sweet Dreams group in 2003 in Omaha, Neb. She had visited a homeless shelter there that was crowded with families.
“There were kids sleeping on the ground outside, or in cars,” Kilstrom recalled. “That’s when I learned a homeless person is not a 40-year-old guy.”
Kilstrom couldn’t get that image out of her head, and wanting to do something to help, she hit on the idea of making pillows for the children.
“If they did not have a bed,” she figured, “they should at least have some place to lay their heads.”
The project grew from there: Kilstrom decided to make blankets and provide stuffed animals as well and invited others in the Omaha community to be part of the effort.
She began hosting a Cuddle Up Tea at the start of the holiday season, where participants brought their donated items and assembled the blankets, pillows and stuffed animals together in bright, ribbon-tied bundles.
When a job transfer brought Kilstrom’s husband, Chuck, to Shell Beach last year, Irene turned the Omaha program over to her daughter, and she launched a new program here.
Kilstrom held the first Cuddle Up Tea last weekend at the Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach, and by the end of the day, there were some 100 bundles ready for distribution.
The holiday gifts aren’t the only way this unsung hero helps others.
She also cooks and serves breakfast two mornings a week — Wednesdays and Thursdays — at Prado Day Center.
Oh, and she always keeps a fresh supply of pillows, complete with home-sewn, flannel pillow cases, in the back of her van, just in case.
“I do the pillows all year,” she said. “Any kid can have a new pillow.”
For going out of her way to bring warmth and comfort to homeless kids all year long, The Tribune honors Irene Kilstrom as an unsung hero.