How did you become involved in the project or cause?
Richmond, CA is infamous as a city with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the country. In the late 1960s, about 40 faith communities came together to create the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP), an ecumenical gathering of community services to help Richmond address its challenges of homelessness and hunger.
I belong to a church that supports GRIP, and had been on the edges of involvement for many years.
How did you translate your hobby into something special for the community or an organization?
I started knitting in 2009 in preparation for recovering from surgery. I knitted for about a year in preparation, and fell in love with the craft. Several people on my vanpool began or re-discovered knitting, so I had a twice-daily knitting group to help me over the initial challenges. My local yarn shop, K2Tog (Albany, CA), has been a great source of inspiration, classes and supplies, as well as becoming another group of knitters to keep me company on this journey. My tiny church has a number of handcrafters (knitting/crochet), and we knit or crochet during services, meetings, rehearsals, workday breaks, etc.
Kia, a GRIP staffer, spoke at our church about opportunities for volunteering. I had been knitting projects to donate, and found it unsatisfying. I didn’t know any of the people my work went to. It was too easy, and too disconnected, to sit in comfort and give away handmade items. I spoke to Kia about teaching knitting at the GRIP Transitional Family Shelter. We figured we had nothing to lose, and it might be fun as well as helpful. I gathered a few of my knitting friends and started “Let’s Knit!” in November 2011. We have been knitting together at GRIP every Tuesday evening since then. When we met the Tuesday after Christmas 2011, one of the women told the group she had made all her family's Christmas presents--they were the only presents that year. She was so delighted! That same woman went on to complete her medical assistant training, kept us apprised each week of her progress and test scores, and would knit on her commute journey each day to and from class.
One day, an imposing staff person approached me and demanded, "Are you Amy? Are you the one teaching that knitting stuff?" Overcoming my initial impulse to deny it, I answered yes. The staffer then said in her gruff way, "Well, you are changing lives here!" I was dumbfounded. Humbled. Honored.
We've become involved in the lives of men, women and children at their lowest ebb by simply showing up to knit, chat, read, learn, laugh, cry, encourage each other. Although it wasn’t the initial intention, we are, in a small way, helping these families move into their next chapter with a little more confidence, a little more hope, knowing they can succeed at one small thing.
What Lion Brand yarn did you use?
We use donated yarns, and many are Lion Brand—a testament to the availability and popularity of Lion Brand yarns. Some of the knitters’ favorites are Wool Ease, WoolEase Thick N Quick, Homespun, Home Town USA, Jiffy, Lion Cotton, Pound of Love, Quick and Cozy and Tweed Stripes. These are yarns that allow the new and rediscovered crafters to succeed swiftly in a project that they can really use—a scarf, a phone cozy, a change purse, a bag.
How many items does your group make in a month or a year?
Since the shelter is a transient population, we often don’t know what projects are completed. However, there are many stories of “tweens” making items to give or sell to their friends, parents making projects for their kids, kids making “lovies” for their family members, and people re-learning fiber crafts they once had learned from their grandparents, aunties, parents, or schools. Hats, mitts and scarves are frequent projects.
How much time do you and/or your group dedicate to the charitable project?
I haven’t calculated the amount of time we truly dedicate, but a rough estimate is about 800 volunteer hours of per year.
Besides our weekly 1.5 hours at the shelter, the “teachers” (volunteers) have a skill-building retreat 1-2 times a year in order to expand our own skills, and to plan some activities for the group. I post on Craigslist, Freecycle, and the local craft/yarn stores when supplies run low, then arrange for pickups/deliveries from donors. Of course, when donations arrive, we have to go through and untangle/separate/ organize so the materials are ready for “Let’s Knit!”
At Christmas, we have a give-away of items the volunteers have knitted and donated, to help whet the appetite for “students” to progress in their own skill development.
How many people have benefited?
In the last 3 years, an average of 15 people attend each week’s class. Because some of those people come weekly for the duration of their stay at the shelter, we estimate about 150 people have directly benefitted from attending the program, and countless others have become collateral beneficiaries.
What would you say to other knitters or crocheters to encourage them to lend their hands to a cause-related effort?
Engage with the recipients of your efforts—your world will expand beyond your wildest dreams! The generosity and grace we receive far outweighs the generosity and grace we offer. I think about Jordan, the 6-year-old African American boy I’m currently enamored of, who just finished his “49ers” scarf. I envision him growing into a grounded, resourceful young African American man who will reflect on his knitting experience, and choose to beat the odds in Richmond. Is that too much to ask of a knitting program? Perhaps—but I believe in “paying it forward.” We never know how our work today will affect the future.
Has the local media reported on your project?
Kia writes for a number of local papers, and has featured this program from time to time. However, I don’t know of a feature article about our program.
If you know, how has your work affected the people for whom you have made donations.
When the formidable staffer asked if I were the one responsible for the knitting class, I recovered myself sufficiently to ask her how lives were being changed. She softened perceptively, and described how those who were learning had recovered self-image, confidence and had become successful in completing a project. They then become more focused in achieving their goals to get back on their feet.
You can imagine how difficult it must be to live in one room of a family shelter, or to share that room with another family (or two!). Tensions run high as people work through their financial, emotional, social and mental issues at a time when their personal resources are at a very low ebb. We frequently hear people who come to knitting say that this work provides a source of calm, meditation and composure in an otherwise chaotic environment. Most recently, I have witnessed the transformation of a single mom of 5 children ranging from ages 4-12 years now at the shelter: she has gone from stressed and angry when she first arrived at the shelter, to composed, supportive of her children, and calmly/generously teaching others to knit. Amazing!
Most aspects of life at the shelter are directed by the imposed structure, which can be oppressive. Shelter staff report that Let’s Knit! provides stability, order and structure in a way the clients control that is not present in other parts of shelter life. Staff at the shelter have described Let’s Knit! as part catharsis, part therapy, part entertainment, part education, and mostly fun. What could be better than this?
I recently learned that since Let’s Knit! got underway, several other community programs have sought to partner with GRIP to enrich the clients’ lives. Interestingly, GRIP staffers have been protective of Tuesday evenings, telling all other programs that Tuesday evenings are off limits. What a testament to the work we are doing!
I haven't received signed releases for photos of people at the Shelter--however, if selected, I will obtain releases from those whose photos I have taken and who wish to be featured on the Lion Brand website.