Drive up to the headquarters of Weighting Comforts and you could be in Anytown, USA. The small corporate office complex in South Nashville is indistinguishable from neighboring buildings and its outer façade hides any hint as to the activity going on inside.
But enter the office of Donna Durham, the company’s founder and president, and you’ll soon see — OK, feel — the difference.
When visitors come to Weighted Comforts, they’re greeted with more than a handshake. Durham has been known to arrange one of her signature weighted blankets around guests and, sure enough, as the cool fabric shifts around them, they begin to feel a lot more at home.
That feeling is what Durham, who has a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling, aims to bring to all who purchase a Weighting Comforts blanket. She wants to provide them with a night of peaceful sleep, free from anxiety.
But that’s just one part of her story.
In the beginning, there was Durham — a college home economics major and mother of four. The Durham family moved home to Nashville in 2011 after living in Iowa, where Donna’s husband, Jamie, was teaching.
While she was in her final semester of graduate school for counseling at Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University in 2014, her advisor needed help with a project; she asked Durham to make weighted blankets for all of the student offices.
“She knew about my background in Home Ec,” Durham explains, though she didn’t know much about the blankets themselves. When the blankets were completed, Durham saw how much power they held.
“It was amazing to see someone who was very anxious and unable to sit still, and then to put a weighted blanket on them,” she said. “It was part of a tool chest of self-care.”
Soon, friends were asking Durham for their own weighted blankets. “My son, Josh, said, ‘I think you have something here’ and he built our Facebook page and website,” Durham says. She had two orders within the first minute of putting the site online.
Durham was on the cusp of something big. Though they’ve been around for decades, often as a way to soothe those with autism, weighted blankets have recently become popular for people who have trouble sleeping or those with anxiety. Medical writers say the blankets, which are filled with evenly-distributed weights, provide users with the same tactile feeling they would experience when getting a hug. Researchers also say that the blankets prompt the release of serotonin, a chemical that reduces anxiety and improves mood, as well as melatonin, which promotes sleep and regulates the sleep cycle.
Initially, Durham began the business by hand-sewing blankets and meeting customers at fabric stores where they could select the fabric they wanted. But demand became too much for one person to handle, and Durham enlisted the help of family members. She even paid the neighbors’ children to help her box and ship the blankets over the Christmas period.
Enter Rita Atkins and Sew For Hope. In early 2015, one of Durham’s friends suggested she reach out to Sew For Hope, a nonprofit started by Christ Presbyterian Church members to teach sewing skills to refugees and immigrants in the Middle Tennessee area.
On April 2, 2015, Durham met several Sew For Hope graduates at the Thrift Smart store on Nolensville Road, where she taught them how to make her blankets. For two years, every week, Durham met her sewing group in the Thrift Smart parking lot, where they exchanged raw materials for finished products.
Weighting Comforts’ first employee was a woman named Anwar, an immigrant from Iraq who was a physics and mathematics major in her home country. Anwar, who remains the senior staff member in the Weighting Comforts manufacturing facility, spoke gently to Durham one day.
“I know 10 women who need work,” said Anwar, a tall woman with a ready smile. “I know a widow from Syria with four children who doesn’t want to be on food stamps; she wants to be able to earn a living.”
Fast forward to June 2018. Weighting Comforts now has 30 full-time employees, many of whom are seamstresses who came to the company through Sew For Hope. They churn out more than 100 blankets per day, each taking about 45 minutes to complete.
Employees come from all over — from besieged Myanmar, from Iraq and Iran, from South America, from Tennessee. The Weighting Comforts’ office manager is a veteran of the Iraq War who graduated from Belmont University’s Entrepreneurship Program. He speaks a little bit of Arabic and has a cultural understanding of the women working in the sewing room.
Weighting Comforts also offers English as a Second Language classes one night a week to its employees, most of whom are women. A brightly-colored map in the English language learners’ classroom has push pins and thread that connect each country of origin to photographs of the company’s employees.
“We want to provide a safe place to learn English; we want this to be a stepping stone,” Durham says, pointing out that religion prohibits many of the women from working side by side with men.
All segments of the manufacturing process are handled within the Weighting Comforts facility: Measuring the PVC beads (blankets come in different weights and have a different colored measuring cup for the number of beads needed for each), stitching the beads inside the quilted blankets, quality control, packaging and fulfillment.
Durham credits many people with the success of her still-new company: Her son Josh, who is now Weighting Comforts’ CEO and marketing guru (“He’s a genius,” says his proud mother); Rita Atkins from Sew For Hope; Anwar, the women who sew, and finally, her own faith. “Faith is important,” she says simply. “This has been a life-changing experience.”
It has certainly been life-changing for Durham, but also for everyone touched by their interactions with the company, whether they be the women who learn English and find employment through Weighting Comforts or the blanket buyers who find peaceful rest.
Courtesy of The Contributor / INSP
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