Editor’s note: The spellings for the names of Ardith Lee and Paula Lee have been corrected.
In the fiber art of crocheting, yarn gets connected together by making loops with a hook — “crochet” means “small hook” in French. Loop enough strands together and you can create shawls, scarves, hats, bags and sweaters.
Crocheting doesn’t just connect fiber. On the Kenai Peninsula, crocheting also connects two programs serving women: Alaska Correctional Ministries in Kenai and South Peninsula Haven House in Homer.
Under the umbrella of the prison ministry, Ardith Mumma of Homer and Susan Smalley of Kenai have been visiting women once a week in the pretrial facility at Wildwood Correctional Complex and teaching them to crochet. The work those women do in turn gets donated to Haven House for sale at Homer Thrift, its thrift store, with proceeds benefitting Haven House’s Child Advocacy Centers.
“It’s amazing,” Mumma said. “I never thought I would want to go into prison and be around people who have broken the law. I love those ladies.”
Using donated yarn and plastic crochet hooks purchased through the Inmate Council, a fund for prisoners for things like craft items and sporting goods, the Wildwood women make crocheted items like hats for homeless people or kids with cancer.
The Child Advocacy Centers in Homer and Kenai offer a safe, nonthreatening place for counselors, health professionals and police to talk with child victims of sexual or physical abuse and investigate the crimes. Haven House director Missi White said the money raised through sales of crochet items at Homer Thrift will support a simple need: snacks and food for children and their families when they visit the Child Advocacy Centers.
“There tend to be needs that arise that we can never forecast from case to case,” White said. “Those are the kind of things that money can help us supply.”
Smalley said the Wildwood women support that use of the proceeds from the sale of their work.
“That brought tears to the eyes of many woman,” Smalley said. “Many have been in that situation.”
Started in 2012, Homer Thrift also serves another need. Clients of Haven House who escape from domestic violence sometimes need job and life skills to become independent, self-sufficient women. Homer Thrift has a 19-week program that teaches women marketable job skills — and gives them a job.
“Homer Thrift is more than a thrift store,” White said.
Mumma helped make the connection between Homer Thrift and the Wildwood crocheters. Paula Lee, manager of Homer Thrift, said she noticed Mumma coming in and buying yarn. She asked Mumma what she did with it and Mumma told her about the Wildwood women.
“So I started setting some yarn aside and donating it to her,” Lee said.
That lead to another idea: selling the finished projects.
“We got to talking. I thought it would be cool if we could sell it,” Lee said.
Wildwood has been doing a crocheting project for men in the minimum security camp for about six years, said Wildwood Correctional Complex Superintendent Shannon McCloud.
“It went along like gangbusters. I said, ‘It’s really unfair the women don’t have anything,’” McCloud said.
The crocheting program for women celebrates its third year this month. Participants use plastic crochet hooks, considered less a security risk than metal hooks or knitting needles. The women’s program at Wildwood is only for defendants awaiting trial. A program like crocheting classes fits the needs of that group.
“It really keeps them busy. We don’t have a lot to offer them because they’re moved around,” McCloud said.
Women taking the crocheting classes also have to participate in other classes. The classes also are a privilege, Smalley said — something the women respect.
“Most of them are pretty motivated and interested in going to classes anyway,” Smalley said.
McCloud said crocheting helps keep prisoners calm and can be especially beneficial to people with drug addictions.
“They’re getting some clarity. It’s something they need to keep their mind off what they’re going through,” she said.
Crocheting also gives the prisoners a chance to feel normal, Smalley said.
“They can talk about crocheting. They can talk about making stuff for someone when they get out,” she said.
“If you changed their clothing and the locale, it would be just like Knitty Night at Knitty Stash,” Mumma said, referring to a weekly knitting session at a Homer fiber arts supply store.
“If you saw us sitting there, we would look like any group of women crocheting, laughing and crying and sharing,” Smalley said.
Because the women use donated yarn, that also forces them to be creative, Smalley said.
“If you go to Joann Fabrics, you get the yarn you want. If you’re at Wildwood, you get the yarn you have,” she said. “They put together things in amazing ways.”
Smalley has been crocheting about 12 years. She calls herself “the yarn facilitator.”
“I’m not a super crocheter. I’m not a super teacher, but I’m willing to beg for yarn and go in and teach the women,” Smalley said. “People in the community have been really generous with donating yarn. In three years we’ve probably donated enough yarn to go to the moon and back.”
In the central peninsula, yarn can be donated at Smalley’s church, Soldotna United Methodist Church. In Homer, Mumma said yarn donations can be dropped off at the Knitty Stash on Main Street. Because the yarn needs to be washed, donations should be acrylic and not wool, Mumma said.
“I feel like that’s something God has placed in my heart,” Mumma said of her work crocheting with the Wildwood women. “I want to do something for those women so when they get out they don’t fall into a black hole and when they get out they’re reoffending.”
“It’s a real gift for me,” Smalley said. “It can be a success where successes are few and far between. It’s a positive thing.”
White noted how the gift of the Wildwood women’s work circles back to help the women and children of Haven House.
“They feel a sense they’re contributing to a community,” she said. “Those types of actions are just huge. They create such a positive impact. That really speaks to the character of the people who are doing this.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com. Megan Pacer is a reporter with the Peninsula Clarion and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.