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Gabe Foster loves to knit and do good deeds. That’s why the 10-year-old jumped at the chance to make red caps for newborns to help raise awareness about congenital heart disease.

Last year, the fifth-grader from Fairport, New York, only had time to make one hat. But this year, he plans to knit four or five hats for Little Hats, Big Hearts, a program from the American Heart Association and The Children’s Heart Foundation that promotes awareness of heart disease and congenital heart defects.

Since the program started in 2014, more than 90,000 hats have been distributed to families in hospitals in 42 states. The hats are collected year-round and distributed throughout the year to babies with and without heart defects. Most AHA field offices deliver them to hospitals during American Heart Month in February and American Stroke Month in May.

“It’s a win-win,” said Gabe of making the tiny hats. “For knitters, they love to knit and it helps babies that have heart disease. It just makes everyone feel warm inside.”

Gabe Foster with the hat he knit last year.

Gabe Foster with the hat he knit last year. (Photo by Janelle Foster)

Gabe’s contribution is especially meaningful because heart disease runs in his family. Both of his grandfathers have heart problems, and a couple relatives died of heart attacks.

The idea for Little Hats, Big Hearts came from Anne Schullo, a community engagement coordinator at the AHA’s Midwest Affiliate.

“It really starts a conversation,” said Schullo. “What is heart disease? Why are we receiving this red hat?”

Hats have come from as far away as Australia and Germany, she said.

A congenital heart defect is a condition present at birth. Nearly 40,000 babies are born with a heart defect every year in the United States. Data from studies show the rate of children born with a minor heart problem is increasing, and about one in four infants born with a heart defect is born with a critical one.

As a former emergency room nurse, Susie Gibbs has seen first-hand the hardship and heartache parents go through when their child is born with a heart defect. This winter, the 66-year-old from Humeston, Iowa, plans to donate more than 200 hats to the project. During the past couple years, she has crocheted more than 250 hats.

Gibbs’ husband, Butch, had both a heart attack and a cardiac arrest within a year’s time. “He’s one of the lucky ones,” she said.

Making something to support a cause feels better than giving money or attending a fundraiser, Gibbs said, because “you have something to show for what you’re doing.”

For a couple in the Chicago area, the day when their twins received red hats stands out as a happy memory during a difficult time. Samantha Behr’s twins, Scarlett and Ashton, were born premature last December. They were in incubators for more than two months and couldn’t breathe or eat on their own for several weeks.

Twins Scarlett and Ashton Behr in their first photo together since being born.

Twins Scarlett and Ashton Behr in their first photo together since being born. (Photo courtesy of Anne Schullo)

The day the newborns got their hats, they were placed side-by-side for a photo. It was the first time the siblings had been next to each other since being born.

“It was huge, because now it felt like we had twins, not just one baby over here and one baby over there,” said the 34-year-old mother of three.

Behr said Little Hats, Big Hearts creates the opportunity for parents going home with healthy babies to learn about congenital heart defects.

“You’re taking a moment to stop and think about what might be happening to other people,” Behr said. “Even if it hasn’t affected you, [you think about] what you can do to be supportive.”