Little Hearts, Big Difference

A few kind words can turn someone’s day around – or in some cases, save a life. 

That’s what Onalaska, Wisconsin, resident Kathleen Jensen found when she started the Little Heart Project, an organization whose volunteers make and distribute knitted or crocheted hearts. Attached to the hearts are encouraging messages such as, “How you feel right now is not forever,” “It’s a good day to be proud of how far you’ve come” and “Be gentle with yourself.” 

After they’re tagged with a note, the hearts are hidden in public areas for people to find or distributed to local businesses, which keep the hearts in buckets for patrons to take. 

The purpose of the project, Jensen said, is to let people know they’re not alone and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide.
“Talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide,” Jensen said. “Hopelessness causes suicide. So we have to talk about it.”

Jensen started the Little Heart Project in April 2022 – after years of struggling with mental illness herself, and after her therapist mentioned a similar effort going on in Texas. Jensen decided to start a program of her own, thinking that “it would be just me and maybe a couple other people leaving hearts here in town.”

She was wrong. Since the project began, Jensen’s life has been a “whirlwind” of speaking at suicide-prevention programs, sending stockpiles of hearts to individuals and organizations across the country, and watching those hearts travel even farther – to Canada, Austria and India. 

The project has made its way to Door County as well. Here, Sturgeon Bay resident Sherry Maass spearheads the effort. She got involved in the project after her son, Eli Maass, died by suicide at age 24 in early 2022. 

“I needed to do it,” Maass said. “It’s therapy for me.”

Knit Hearts Bring Wounded Hearts Together

Maass found out about the Little Heart Project early this year through Whitney Gross, owner of Knit Whit’s Yarn & Crafts in Baileys Harbor. Maass was a regular customer at the store and had to cancel a sweater-making class there when her son died. Because of that, Gross knew what Maass had been going through, and when Gross heard about the Little Heart Project, she was quick to ask Maass whether she wanted to get involved. 

Maass did, so they partnered to host a heart-making kickoff event at Knit Whit’s in February. About 20 people showed up to make hearts, and many of them shared that they had been personally affected by suicide in some way. This was a community Maass hadn’t been able to connect with before her involvement with the Little Heart Project.

“When we [Sherry Maass and her husband, Steve Maass] lost Eli, we searched for some kind of support, and that was really difficult to find,” Maass said.

The Little Heart Project has a special way of bringing people together, according to Jensen. Throughout her past year of outreach, many people have shared with her their own mental-health stories – a 75-year-old woman who had self-harmed her entire life and never told anyone before Jensen; a man who survived a suicide attempt and now spreads little hearts around his town; and a young woman who had attempted suicide the night before attending the first volunteer program Jensen led.

“She said, ‘Kathleen, last night I almost killed myself, and being here today helps me feel better,’” Jensen said. “That was on day one. That’s why I do what I do.”

Local Buckets of Hearts

Locally, the Little Heart Project brings together a small core of volunteers. One such volunteer is Judie Gauger, a Fish Creek resident who, by her estimate, has contributed more than 1,800 hearts to the project.

Locally made hearts fill 31 buckets at 24 local establishments, including the Northern Door Children’s Center, Door County Medical Center and the Red Putter, among others, Maass said.

“My goal was to have 24 buckets placed by June 1st, because that’s how old my son was when he died,” Maass said. “Now I have 24 locations, but 31 buckets.” 

The Little Heart Project means something different to everyone involved. For Gauger, it’s a way to relax while also giving back to the community; for Jensen, it’s a way to help other people who are dealing with the same kind of mental-health issues that she’s spent decades fighting; for Maass, it’s a way to heal from the loss of her son.

And maybe, for someone who comes across a heart, it’s a sign to keep going. 

“If we can save one person’s life by helping them feel that they are not alone, that there’s more than what they feel at that moment, then everything we’ve done is worth it,” Maass said.

A Note about Suicide Terminology

Though it’s common to say that someone “committed” suicide, many mental-health advocates prefer the term “died by suicide.”

“You commit a crime; you commit adultery; you commit murder,” said Kathleen Jensen, founder of the Little Heart Project. But people who die by suicide aren’t choosing to do something immoral; they’re suffering from a mental illness.

“You don’t say someone ‘committed’ cancer; you say someone got sick,” Jensen continued. “One way to take away some of the shame [associated with suicide] is to just use the right verbiage.”

How You Can Help 

With the tourist season upon us, local Little Heart Project volunteers need extra help. Instructions for making hearts, as well as a printable PDF of supportive notes to attach to them, are available at Local project head Sherry Maass can also provide the notes to volunteers or attach the notes to the hearts herself. 

If crafting isn’t your thing, you can help by donating money or materials to the organization. 

Anyone interested in helping with the project may contact Maass at [email protected]

Editor’s note: This story has changed from the original to reflect that Judy Gauger’s husband is not terminally ill.