Life has many ups and downs. Some are easier to cope with than others. Often people find themselves in need of comfort. Maybe that comfort comes in the form of support from family and friends. Perhaps it comes in the form of a visit, a phone call or a card which can lift the spirit.

Comfort can also come in the form of a soft handmade warm shawl to be wrapped around you like a hug-a hug that has been prayed over. These are called Prayer Shawls.

The national Prayer Shawl Ministry began in 1998 when two graduates of the 1997 Women's Leadership Institute at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut gave birth to an idea. Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo believed the care and love of knitting (and crocheting) a shawl with many blessings knitted into it could provide the recipient with comfort and solace. The knitter is asked to pray for the recipient throughout the creation of the shawl. When it is completed, there is a final prayer ritual before it is sent on its way.

Then it is hoped that when a person wraps oneself in a prayer shawl, the shawl serves as a reminder of the mercy, peace and compassion that can be found in God's loving embrace.

In late January 2010, Ruth Ann Allen of Kunkletown, learned about the impact a prayer shawl had on one of her fellow Effort UMC parishioners, Colleen Washburn, 48, of Sierra View. Colleen had received a prayer shawl from a member of the Pocono Mountain UMC's ministry because she was very ill and in need of a lung transplant.

She had suffered with emphysema for 12 years and was on a lung transplant list for three and a half years.

"It was overwhelming to me when I received the prayer shawl in 2007. It gave me such comfort. When you think you're all alone and no one knows what you're going through and then you receive a gift like this ... it's amazing. It's amazing to know someone does care, regardless of the situation."

Colleen was so appreciative of the shawl and all it represented that she wanted to see if members of her church would be interested in starting a prayer shawl ministry. She talked to Ruth Ann about it.

At the next Effort UMC phone prayer chain meeting, Ruth Ann told the others in attendance about Colleen and her shawl and wanted to know if there would be interest in starting one at the church.

Mert Wolfe of Effort was present at the meeting. She instantly knew this was the answer to her own prayers.

"For years I was looking for such a ministry," she says. "I've been crocheting for years and I've wanted to do something to let others know someone cares. This fit the bill."

Mert, a former nurse, had been injured on the job over 20 years ago and developed serious physical issues that she lives with daily.

"I wanted to do this because I know about hurting. Even if I can't walk or I can't get out of bed, my brain still works. My hands still work and I can show someone, someone else cares, because I know what pain is like. I can do that by making prayer shawls."

She immediately began researching to learn more about prayer shawl ministry and invited members of the church to join her on Feb. 7.

"It was my idea but Mert ran with it. She's a doer, an organizer," says Colleen, who has made six shawls for the ministry.

At this first meeting with Ruth Ann, Colleen and two other ladies, their pastor, the Rev. Dave Felker walked in and asked them what was going on.

When he learned what they were doing, he told them he knew of a member who had been battling cancer for years and thought she could use such a shawl. She was the recipient of the group's first prayer shawl. When Pastor Felker gave it to her, she had a blanket around her shoulders. She took it off and wrapped the shawl around her. She told him the shawl made her feel wonderful.

The group has been meeting since on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 10 a.m. at the church located on Merwinsburg Road in Effort.

In April they met on the 6th and on April 7, Colleen got a call that she was to come to Philadelphia for a lung transplant. She was the recipient of a double lung transplant the same day. She says she is doing very well, feeling better than she has in a very long time. She gives a lot of credit to all the prayers she received through her first prayer shawl and the second one, which came from her own prayer shawl ministry at Effort.

"The second one is just as meaningful to me as the first one. I wear them often," she says. "My faith has become even stronger than it was before, because of the ministry, and the support I have received from my church."

At the church's April 10 and 11 worship services, 37 prayer shawls were dedicated.

Since that first meeting in February, the group has made and distributed a total of 61 prayer shawls.

One of the recipients called and said, "Oh Mert, how did you know I needed this?"

Mert says that when you think about it, "Not one of us hasn't been in need at sometime in our lives."

The shawls have found their way as far as Philadelphia, Ohio and Georgia.

The group had heard about a lady in Georgia through one of their fellow parishioners. She had fallen off a roof, breaking every bone in her face, wrist and forearm and they sent her one of their prayer shawls.

"She told us that the minute she received it, she put it on and immediately felt God's arm wrap around her to comfort her."

Another recipient was a young woman whose husband died unexpectedly.

"She told us that when she thinks he just has to come through the door, she wears her shawl to help her through the pain," says Mert.

The prayer shawl is a link for when you need solace. You wrap it around you and know someone somewhere cares.

Mert explains that from the moment they pick up the yarn to be used in the making of the shawl, whether it is knitted or crochet, prayer begins.

Mert says that some people think a prayer shawl is meant for only people suffering with an illness. But that isn't so.

"We don't know who the shawl is meant for, only God knows. Our prayers are offered up for comfort, strength, healing, serenity, peace, well-being, relief from guilt and for emotional healing," says Ruth Ann.

Their pastor, the Rev. Felker, retired, and their assistant pastor, Deb Hoffman has moved on to minister her own parish. Both received a prayer shawl, stitched with prayers for their continued good health and for God to be with them wherever their lives lead them in the future.

Each member of the prayer shawl ministry group is given a book of prayers that they can use as they work on the shawls, if they want to use them, or their own. There are even designated colors that can be used for specific diseases and difficult situations like pink for breast cancer, red for heart disease and DUI awareness, gray for diabetes, etc. There are colors for healing (green,) courage (aqua,) devotion (teal,) and wisdom (purple.)

When the shawls are completed, they are given to the prayer shawl ministry committee for a "laying on of hands."

A prayer shawl is wrapped in tissue paper and placed in a Christian-themed gift bag. It is accompanied with a card, each one hand-colored, explaining what it is and who it was made by. There are two different messages.

"This shawl was handmade for you by Effort Prayer Shawl Ministry. As it was created, we prayed for you. We asked the Lord to give you many blessings, healing, peace, courage and strength. May this shawl wrap you in God's comfort and love."

The other is " This Shawl was created especially for you with love and prayers. May God who formed your being, who knitted you together in your mother's womb, who gave you the breath of life, renew you this day and give you hope to sustain you. May this prayer shawl be a sign of Christ's healing presence. May it warm you when you are weary; May it surround you with comfort to ease your suffering; May it encircle you with caring when you are in pain. In Jesus' name. Amen. Effort United Methodist Prayer Shawl Ministry."

All the names of the recipients are kept in a book and are included in the prayers of the group.

"The ripple effect of the ministry is amazing. I took my mother to a doctor appointment and we were working on shawls as we waited. One of the nurses in the office, Toni, asked us what we were making. I told her and she immediately gave me $10 to be used toward the ministry. The doctor's mother, a nurse in the office, heard about it. She came out and handed me $5, saying it was the only cash she had on her at the time. When my mother finally got in to see Dr. Scalzo, he told me he was going to give me a check to be used for the ministry," says Ruthann.

Dr. David Scalzo, DPM, P.C. in Duryea gave her a $50 check and his mother, Patricia Scalzo has since given the ministry two large bags of yarn.

Recently Mert and her husband were having dinner at a restaurant in the Lehigh Valley. Her husband saw a lady wearing a shawl and he said, "Maybe she's wearing one of yours." It wasn't one of Mert's but she recognized it as one made by Ruth Ann.

As they were leaving the restaurant, Mert stopped at the lady's table and said, "What a lovely shawl."

The woman thanked her and said, "It's a prayer shawl. I've been having some problems and it came from my daughter's church in Effort. It's a real comfort."

Mert walked away feeling very humbled by the effects of the prayer shawl ministry.

Ruth Ann also has witnessed those effects. She recently gave a shawl to someone she knew was going through an extremely difficult time.

"I grew up with someone and we went to Sunday School together. He became a business man and was very involved in his church. Due to an unknown illness, he is now a paraplegic. He no longer speaks, just makes a guttural sound all the time."

Ruth Ann says that as she and his wife placed the shawl around his shoulders, he immediately calmed down and smiled ear to ear. His wife began crying at his obvious reaction to it.

"He knew God's presence was with him. It was so touching," says Ruth Ann, who still becomes emotional when she reflects on that scene.

As people learn about the ministry, they are submitting names to the committee.

"Even the young people of the church are very receptive to it. They come and ask for a shawl to be given to a family member or a friend they know who is hurting," says Mert.

"I never would have believed this was going to explode like it did," says Ruth Ann.

"We never could have guessed there was such a need for this," adds Mert.

In addition to the prayers Mert stitches into her shawls, she also adds a pin with small charms to bring a smile to the recipient.

"I'm a crafter. I love to make things. And I love to give them away. What's better than bringing a smile or making someone feel special?"

Each of the members find ways to include their own creative gifts in the construction and use of colors in the shawls. Mert says the shawls don't have to be knitted or crocheted. If someone's talent is quilting or making fleece shawls, those are appreciated as well.

The prayer shawl ministry is funded by the group and through donations of cash, needles and yarn.

If you would like to learn more about the Prayer Shawl Ministry or start one, you are welcome to call Mert at (610) 681-6419 or Ruth Ann at (570) 460-7131 or log on to www.shawlministry.com.

"The ministry helps us strengthen our own relationship with the Lord. I thought I already had a strong one but this has made it stronger," says Mert.