November 09, 1998 12:00 PM

Opening the wooden gates of her ranch in Parker, Colo., Karen Loucks-Baker smiles at the sight of the big cardboard carton next to the mailbox. She bends down and picks it up with ease, as if she knows the package will be light despite its size. Indeed it is—it’s just another delivery of handmade blankets for Project Linus, her organization devoted to giving little pieces of quilted and crocheted love to children in need. “It’s amazing,” says Loucks-Baker, 35. “These people have never even met the children, and they’re willing to take the time to make a blanket.”

In the 2½ years since Loucks-Baker began the nonprofit operation, thousands of volunteers in 200 chapters have delivered 50,000 blankets—from pastel baby coverlets to bright, full-length afghans—to youngsters in hospitals, shelters, on Indian reservations and elsewhere across the country. “The big thing is that the blankets are handmade,” says Loucks-Baker, the wife of drummer Ginger Baker (a former bandmate of Eric Clapton’s in the ’60s supergroup Cream). “Love and prayers and all kinds of great thoughts are put into them.”

The inspiration for Project Linus came to Loucks-Baker on Christmas Eve 1995. Flipping through a Sunday newspaper magazine, she saw a photo of a little girl who had cancer. “She was just standing there, with her downy head of hair, her security blanket in her hand,” remembers Loucks-Baker. “I had just recently learned how to crochet, and I decided right then and there that I was going to make blankets for the children at the local cancer center.”

A self-described “turbo crocheter,” Loucks-Baker took her first blanket to Dr. Edward Arenson, a pediatric oncologist in Denver. “I get a lot of people who come to me and want to do something for kids with cancer, and a lot of times they have really crazy ideas,” Arenson says. “But when Karen came to me, it was pretty clear that this was one of those ideas that is so simple and so obviously good that there isn’t any downside.” The blankets, notes Arenson, give kids something medication can’t. “It makes them feel loved. They hug it, and it’s theirs. It’s an instant bonding.”

The idea was also an immediate hit with quilters, crocheters and knitters. After a newspaper story appeared about Loucks-Baker’s goal of making blankets for each of the cancer center’s 100 children, she was deluged with offerings. Then, in March 1996, she appeared on ABC’s now-canceled Mike & Maty talk show. Seconds after her appearance, her voice mail filled with 135 calls—and quit taking messages. “It was complete bedlam,” she says. “The phone just rang and rang.”

Overnight the 10-acre ranch that Karen shares with her husband was transformed into a blanket warehouse. “It was a great thing, but they were all over the house,” recalls the British musician, 59, who worried that even the basement “dungeon” where he practices would be swamped. “I said, ‘What on earth are you going to do with them?’ ” In response, his wife began sorting the phone inquiries by area code—and, in short order, Project Linus had chapters in every state in the U.S.

Her impressive organization, which she now runs with the help of four volunteer assistants, doesn’t surprise either her father, Charlie Loucks, 74, a retired federal government worker, or her 66-year-old mother, Valerie, a homemaker. Even as a child in Arlington, Va., “Karen had two speeds,” says her mother. “Fast and faster.”

There was nothing slow about the blossoming of her relationship with Baker either. Karen, a 1985 journalism graduate of the University of Maryland, was living in L.A. and “spinning my wheels” when she met the rock star while tagging along with a fellow waitress hired to cut Baker’s hair before a November 1988 Hollywood gig. Instead of the infamous heroin junkie she’d expected, Karen found “a regular old country gentleman.” Three months later, she moved in with Baker at his Agua Dulce, Calif., spread and became his manager. The couple married (she for the first time, he for the third; Baker has three children by his first wife) in April 1990. Although Ginger “is a high maintenance dude,” Karen admits, “finally it was, like, we’ve been through everything from dogs being run over to appendix surgery, and so why not marriage?”

Kids, however, are another story. Although Karen—who, with Ginger, has nine thoroughbred horses and five dogs—says Project Linus has taught her that “kids are really awesome,” she isn’t planning to have any of her own. “I believe it’s not my calling,” she says. “I’ve been given another mission.”

Bruce Frankel

Ulrica Wihlborg in Parker

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