Knitting4Peace provides warmth at home and abroad

At nearly every lecture and concert, several pairs of hands are busy with needles and yarn. Soon, some of the fruits of that labor might be warming the bodies of Chautauqua County’s neediest residents.

Knitting4Peace, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization founded at Chautauqua Institution by Susan McKee in 2006, plans to begin a “Community Purls” project for residents of the surrounding county, 19.1 percent of whom live in poverty, according to the United States Census Bureau. Comparatively, 15 percent of all New York state residents are impoverished.

“There’s almost a sense of denial to not really acknowledge that we [Chautauqua County] are in Appalachia,” McKee said.

Community Purls projects like the one planned for Chautauqua County serve the unrecognized “pearls” in American communities and “provide warmth and hope” through the delivery of handcrafted items. Informational sessions are held at 12:15 p.m. Mondays, gatherings are held at 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays and 12:15 p.m. Thursdays to allow crafters to work together. Knitting4Peace, which is transitioning from its original title, Women4Women-Knitting4Peace, was inspired by talks from Sister Joan Chittister and women from the Israeli interfaith community, Neve Shalom, on the 2004 Interfaith Lecture platform. These lecturers urged listeners to realize that world peace is impossible without the participation of women and not to forget women in conflict zones such as Israel.

“They sort of took hold of me like a powerful dream,” McKee said.

Though McKee was compelled to act, she struggled to answer that call until the following season, when she was inspired to use the knitting projects Chautauquan women created during lectures to “knit together” the Abrahamic communities with handmade tokens of compassion and peace.

Together with her husband, Hal Simmons, and daughter, Kate Simmons, McKee founded the Knitting4Peace headquarters in Denver, their hometown. They continue to run the organization from Denver when Chautauqua is not in season.

“Chautauqua is the heartbeat of this organization, and Denver is sort of the brain,” McKee said.

Initially, the handcrafted tokens created by Knitting4Peace volunteers were limited to women’s prayer shawls that were sent to Iraq and South Sudan.

“The women in South Sudan were so grateful and excited and very expressive of a feeling of connection through the intentional creation of the shawls for them,” McKee said.

Though the initial Knitting4Peace deliveries were successful, requests began to arrive for hundreds of additional items. The need demonstrated by each of these requests was carefully researched to ensure they not only filled a genuine need, but did not create unintended problems for recipients.

Over the years, this process has led to the creation of 11 additional, specifically requested items that can be created by knitters, crocheters and quilters of all skill levels. These items include hats in all sizes, baby and adult blankets, scarves, mittens and gloves, and warm socks. Also delivered are Peace Pals, small, knitted dolls given to children for comfort and companionship, and quilted sleeping mats for AIDS orphans in Swaziland.

“When people know that [their handmade items] are going to go to a child, it’s so much more meaningful than a [monetary] donation,” Kate Simmons said.

Patterns for each of these items are available online, but crafters are welcome to use their favorite patterns as long as they somehow incorporate some “element of three,” which represents the three Abrahamic traditions, the connection between the item’s creator, recipient and the Spirit of Life that unites them, and Knitting4Peace’s tri-fold mission of hope, healing and peace. These elements of three can be anything from three colors of yarn to a number of stitches divisible by three, to the head, body and legs of a handmade Peace Pal doll.

While Knitting4Peace is founded in the Abrahamic tradition, participation is welcome from members of all faiths and those who claim no faith. Crafters may work on their own or in “Peace Pods,” groups that meet to create Knitting4Peace items together. Peace Pods are currently active throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Peace Pods and individual crafters can send completed items to the Knitting4Peace headquarters in Denver for international distribution. Items may also be donated locally as part of “Community Purls” projects such as the one planned for Chautauqua County.

“It’s like a drop in the ocean,” McKee said. “It’s not just about throwing money at a problem. It’s about the intention that goes into it.”

According to Hal Simmons, part of this intentionality is the means through which items are delivered to recipients. Most Knitting4Peace deliveries are facilitated by individuals who are traveling to delivery sites, and all other organizations are carefully chosen to ensure direct delivery to intended recipients.

“There’s nothing like handing a Peace Pal to a kid who has nothing,” Simmons said.

To date, this network has created 71,112 items that have been delivered to 63 countries and thousands of needy Americans by more than 750 delivery agents.

“The work is really about need in our own community, as well as the global community,” McKee said.

So far, the Chautauqua County Community Purls project is supported by five local organizations that have agreed to act as delivery agents. Four additional organizations have arranged to serve as drop-off locations. Items needed for the Chautauqua County community include mittens, youth hats, baby caps, baby blankets, adult winter hats, scarves, shawls and Peace Pals.

“It’s going to help fill a gap in supplying warmth to children and families in need [in Chautauqua County,” said Sue Cala of Cala Lily Yarn Shop in Lakewood. “I think so many of us are blessed, and in my experience owning a yarn store, I’ve found that there are an incredible number of people who want to give of their talent and time. It’s a way for [those people] to help fill a need in our local community.”

McKee said while the handmade donations are valuable to recipients, volunteers who create the items benefit immensely, too.

“We are a vehicle for connecting people’s desire with the ability to make a difference in the world,” she said. “No matter if they’re bedridden or blind or poor, they can use this program as a means of connecting with the need in the world. Being able to contribute to the world in this way helps them to feel, ‘I have a purpose.’ ”

Sigi Schwinge, who has been knitting items for Knitting4Peace since early in the organization’s history, appreciates the ability to give that the program affords her.

“[America] takes a lot from people around the world, but this is something that we can give them,” she said. “This is something I can do. I can’t give millions, but I can give something.”

For Chautauquan Shirley Whipple Struchen, knitting items for donation helps her to remember to think outside of her community.

“We come from all walks of life, and from what I’ve seen, there’s a basic concern for others who have needs [among the crafters],” she said. “It expands your mind. I think it keeps an awareness in front of me. You’re just so hopeful about the people you’re knitting for.”

Meanwhile, McKee sees Knitting4Peace as a large part of her contribution to the world.

“This is a very important part of what I feel called to do in the world,” she said.