Barb Melom never intended to start a knitting movement. But five years ago, when she asked her mother-in-law what she wanted for Christmas, the response was “to work in a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve.”
“I got to thinking, it would be nice to have a gift to hand out at the shelter,” said Melom, an avid knitter from Minneapolis. “I thought of a hat.’’
About six weeks later, more than 300 freshly knit hats were stacked in the spare bedroom of her south Minneapolis home, thanks to fast fingerwork by her and friends.
It was the birth of Hats for the Homeless, which is marking its fifth year and its 5,000th hat.
An informal network of a couple of hundred knitters, it has captured the attention of like-minded colleagues across the county, who now also ship hats to Minnesota each year. That’s in addition to donations by local knitting circles, yarn shops, churches and other supporters who have woven an unusual niche in philanthropy.
“A lot of people like the idea of charity knitting,” said Melom. “It’s such a small act of kindness to knit a hat. And in cold weather, everyone needs one.”
Hats have landed at Melom’s doorstep from New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Montana, Wisconsin, Hawaii and beyond. Said Melom: “And we just got one from Amsterdam!”
Richard Green Central Park Community School in Minneapolis is among the beneficiaries of the knitters’ labor. The woolen hats are given to students whose families are homeless or precariously housed, as well as others who lack protection from Minnesota winters.
School social worker Sandee Lawson says students consider the hats “cool.”
“There’s always a design on them or something special,” said Lawson. “Every hat carries something of the person who knitted it, so the child can know ‘Somebody loves me too.’ ”
Melom, a retired speech therapist, just wanted 60 knit hats that Christmas Eve in 2009 when she and her mother-in-law worked at Simpson Housing Service’s homeless shelter in Minneapolis. When her shout-out to her church and friends yielded a swift 300, she realized she was on to something.
By the second year, more than 900 hats poured in. On the third year, 1,200. Then 1,600 last year. At least an equal number is expected this year.
The donations come year-round, Melom said, but the boom season runs now through late November.
The big push started last week, with a packed six-hour knitting fest at StevenBe Studio/Yarn Garage of Minneapolis, which has become a major project supporter.
Other key local “collaborators” include knitters at First Universalist Church, the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Lake Harriet United Methodist Church, Linden Yarn & Textiles, and others who have donated talents and balls of yarn to the cause.
In 2010, Hats for the Homeless was selected as a featured nonprofit by Sharing Our Gifts, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers.
That opened the doors to national donors.