Countless children and adults have warmth and encouragement this winter thanks to a dying man's legacy.

John "Jack" Apland, a longtime rancher from Canistota, was in his final months of life in 2016 when he and his family launched Knots & Love, a project to tie and make blankets for Black Hills area children in foster care. Knots & Love began as a one-time effort to help Apland, 89, find purpose in life when his health was failing and he was facing many personal struggles.

"There was so much Dad couldn't do anything about (the last few months of his life), but so much he could," said Lisa Wells, Apland's daughter. "We talked about all he had to be grateful for. ... That segued into, 'What about if we do something for those people (in need)?' It was a good reminder to be grateful, and (tying blankets) was something he could physically do himself, on his terms, according to his abilities."

In 2016, Apland and his family set a goal to donate 45 blankets to the Department of Social Services in Sturgis before Thanksgiving. Friends and community members got involved and on Nov. 10, 2016, his family donated 67 blankets, Wells said.

Though Apland died about two weeks before the blankets were donated, the project succeeded in giving him a sense of value and productivity. To his family's surprise, Knots & Love also has become a movement that's spread to several states, Wells said.

Apland's family decided keep Knots & Love going in 2017, and beyond, in their father's honor. "Dad said yes to this project at the worst time in his life," Wells said. "The needs of those children have not gone away. There are still children whose lives have been turned upside down." 

Word spread about Knots & Love, and people in Washington, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and South Dakota got involved this year. "People either contacted us and said they were going to do this in their community ... or helped donate in this area," Wells said. "The donations kept coming."

Several Black Hills community groups contributed to Knots & Love, Wells said. One of Apland's former nurses, Ches Hegge, and Spearfish Regional Hospital Employees gave blankets. The YMCA Teen Center in Rapid City and YMCA members, the Zion Dorcas Circle in Rapid City, and the Fountain Springs Fervent Ladies Life Group gave hats, gloves and blankets.

Each time items filled up the storage space in Wells' home, she and her family made donations. In 2017, Knots & Love delivered 129 blankets to the Sturgis Department of Social Services on Sept. 15 — the day before what would have been Apland's 90th birthday. On Oct. 29, the day before the one-year anniversary of Apland's death, Knots & Love delivered 67 blankets, 55 book bags, 32 books, four cans of baby formula, two toys and two backpacks to the Black Hills Children's Home. On Dec. 18, Knots & Love gave 26 blankets, four sweaters, 20 pairs of socks, 21 hats, 12 pairs of mittens and gloves, two cans of baby formula and four toys to Black Hills Children's Home, Wells said. 

Beyond meeting physical needs, Wells and her siblings use Knots & Love as a way to spread hope and encouragement. The Knots & Love motto is that everyone has value and everyone can make a difference. 

"The elderly and shut-ins can feel shut off from society. Well-meaning families may come to visit, but find themselves glancing at their watches after they're run out of conversation. I've had individuals tell me that, like Dad, they felt like they didn't have value and wanted that to change. Having a project like Knots & Love gives people a common ground, a goal and a chance to make a difference," Wells said. 

Knots & Love also has helped Apland's family find a positive way to channel their grief over their beloved dad.

"Something my family and I learned is when something bad happens to you, it's so important to find or create something good so you have balance," Wells said. "Being part of somebody's solution becomes your solution."

Heading into 2018, Wells said Knots & Love will continue to take donations year-round. More important, she said, the project will encourage people to simply find ways to make a positive difference in others' lives.

"Look around and see what people need. ... Bring a sick person soup. ... Maybe your family can shovel a neighbor's sidewalk. How about taking a plate of cookies to a shut-in, or writing an encouraging letter to a soldier?" Wells said. "There's a lot of ways you can make a difference." 

For more information, go to the Knots & Love Facebook group.

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