Piedmont inmates' crocheted crafts warm hearts, bodies

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It wasn’t exactly a Christmas party.

But oh! It could have been!

Residents of the North Carolina State Veterans Home at the Hefner VA Medical Center were getting presents and singing songs and having a party, whether or not that had been in the plans.

And it probably was.

When a dozen or more people show up laden with gifts of all kinds of crocheted goodies — scarves, lap blankets and more, more, more — made and sent to them by the inmates of the Piedmont Correctional Center when Christmas is in the air — why can’t it be a holiday party?

Especially when the Medical Center staff livened up the gift-giving event with happy songs of the season accompanied by — well, it wasn’t exactly a dance, but it was exactly what seemed called for when they broke into an energetic rendition of “Jingle bells.”

Of course, there were no jingle bells or one-horse sleighs anywhere around the VA Medical Center, but what difference did that make?

There were happy visitors from everywhere, including 12 members of the staff from Piedmont Correctional Institution who work with older male prisoners, who have learned to crochet.

Yep, crochet.

And all the crocheters are men, which gives you a moment’s pause.

When people talk about crocheting, they’re usually remembering a grandmother who was adept at that particular skill and spent her time making wonderful afghans that keep you warm during a nap or on a cold night.

But not these guys. They know exactly what to do with a crochet needle and a skein of wool.

They’re good enough at it now to make lap blankets and scarves and shawls and all manner of things that can keep somebody — or a lot of somebodies — warm in winter. During the past couple of weeks, staff members at Piedmont Correctional visited the Hefner VA to give the crocheted gifts to patients who might not have had any company in a long time — and then returned to the prison and told the crocheting inmates how happily their gifts were received.

So the staff members who were there couldn’t help glorying in the pleasure the Medical Center folks obviously had with the gifts, the visit, the conversation and the music.

“We supervise any program for the inmates,” says Willie Edley, assistant superintendent of programs at Piedmont Correctional.

“And we have an inmate group unable to work because of their age,” adds Program Director Sheila Flowers. “Some are in wheelchairs, and they really just can’t work. So we got the idea — to teach them how to crochet — from another facility and a couple of people from the staff came and taught them.”

The inmates moved on from there. “They really taught themselves,” she added.

“We bought the yarn from the inmate welfare fund and the profit from canteen sales,” says Susan Trexler, a member of the prison staff. “It’s supposed to be spent on the inmate population, so we use that money to give them this.”

Not that the inmates jumped at the idea in the beginning.

“At first, the attitude was that it was a feminine thing to crochet, but now they really enjoy it. And they’re really creative,” Trexler says, “and they feel good about what they’re doing, and you can see it in their smiling faces. They’re very creative.”

Big Daddy Bill Proctor, a patient at the State Nursing Home, has been there since June 1, “and I love it,” he says.

“And my wife, Rosezitta, comes to visit, and she loves it, too.”

So do Bridget Stinson and Annie Rogers and Margaret Conner, nursing assistants who have all been there a long time and love the patients with whom they work.

And more afghans and mittens and pillows and whatever else lends itself to a crochet needle and a ball of yarn are becoming special gifts every day.

“There was opposition to the program at first,” says Flowers, the program director at the prison, “but it’s become therapeutic for the inmates, and it’s a way for them to make a small contribution, to do something positive.

“When you’re crocheting,” she adds, “you can think about things that you should have done, maybe some of the decisions you should have made. You can think about your life and deal with some of the poor decisions and ponder how to do it differently when you walk out of the prison.

Moreover, says Shannon Strickland, a case manager at the prison, it becomes part of a health maintenance program for inmates who have mental and physical problems.

And what’s best of all, the men in the crocheting program know their gifts will be well used.

“It’s not hard once you learn the basic pattern,” says one inmate. They choose to work with the colors they like and make items they think will be used.

“It took me about two months to learn,” says Michael Holloman.

“I learned it in here,” adds David Merritt.

“At first,” he adds, “the men reacted that it was a woman’s thing to do, but after it got started, they realized they enjoyed it.”

And at first he was sure “there was no way I’m going to be able to do it, but in a couple of weeks” they were all crocheting including David Merritt.

Some have health problems that make the crocheting difficult, one man says, “because they have some difficulty, like I’m in a wheelchair.”

And they can make a little money — 40 cents a day — while they’re doing something for someone else and feeling good about it.

That goes into an account that can be used in the canteen for coffee or other goodies.

And they’re happy that the items they make will be given to someone they know will appreciate them.

“We know we’ll donate them to someone who will appreciate them,” said another, adding that it’s especially nice to have something they enjoy indoors during the winter. “In the summer we have a garden.”

And during all seasons, they have sessions on anger management, stress, ethics and various other classes, including learning “why we’re here.”

Generally that’s because they didn’t make the right choices.

“In the beginning when I got in the crocheting class,” says Mike Holloman, “I thought, ‘Oh, man!’ What did I get into, but when I found out where it was going, it was nice. And when I get out, I’ll be able to do it. You can do all different kind of patterns.”

“At the beginning,” another says, “I wondered if I’d get the hang of it, but I surprised myself.”

“We’re here every day,” another says, “for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon for five days a week.”

Charles Phillips had chronic gout in his fingers.

“And my hands were real stiff,” he adds, “but now the crocheting helps my hands instead of me just laying around and letting my hands get real stiff. Some days I can do it fast, and sometimes I can’t.”

“These guys have been able to do some really great things,” says Willie Edley, assistant superintendent in charge of programs, “and if any group or individual can donate yarn …

“In order for us to be able to donate more crocheted scarves, gloves, blankets, sweaters and many other kinds of articles to schools or nursing homes,” Sheila Flowers says, “we need more yarn which could be donated by community organizations or the public or churches or civic groups.”

“The men are here because they’ve done something wrong,” says one of the guards, and the emphasis of the program is that they can give something back to make up for that.

At the beginning, most of them thought it was sissy for a man to crochet, but not now.

“Making the items they give to the community is satisfying,” says one of the staff members, “because they want to be part of the community, too. It’s made me feel good about what we’re doing.”

So do those men who are busy crocheting. They not only know that the people who get the lap blankets and scarves and whatever else a guy has made will keep them cozy.

And what could be better on a chilly winter night?

Contact Rose Post at 704-797-4251 or rpost@salisburypost.com.