Could a crocheted giraffe lead us toward a safer society?

It's a tall order. But a restorative justice project bringing together inmates at the federal prison in Sandstone, Minn., University of Minnesota honor students and very sick children at four Twin Cities Ronald McDonald Houses reminds us that, sometimes, a simply woven idea can be transformative for all involved.

"The guys wrote me a letter, and it's hard to describe," said Dr. Rebecca Shlafer, an assistant professor in the U's department of pediatrics who teaches a course titled "Incarceration and the Family."

"They said, 'Thank you for giving us a chance. For believing that we were worthy of your time.'

"We learned just as much from them."

Last spring, Shlafer took her students on an unusual field trip to the low-security, all-male prison in Sandstone to meet inmates and give them something:

Bags stuffed with yarn of myriad colors.

Shlafer had been preparing for this exchange since the previous summer, when she was contacted by Diana Poch, a psychologist at Sandstone who saw promising behavioral shifts in a small group of inmates who were crocheting together.

Poch knows that prison can become a monotonous environment, leading to boredom and rising tensions. But those who were crafting charming animals from yarn were staying focused.

Those who knew how to crochet were patiently teaching others. Racial groups that never spoke to one another sat together to learn the craft. Staff members and inmates were communicating about designs.

As the program grew to about 25 men, Poch knew that it was a keeper but that outside help would be welcome. She reached out to Shlafer, who she knew had a keen interest in the outcomes for children with parents in prison.

Shlafer's 15 students from various majors — child psychology, math and engineering, animal science — began collecting yarn from local businesses, faith communities, neighbors. If money came in, they bought crochet hooks and patterns.

They arrived at Sandstone with close to 350 pounds of yarn.

The inmates named the program Project Teddy Bear.

An unexpected experience

Senior Laura Reimann, a child development major, was immediately intrigued. She grew up in central Wisconsin, "in a house where social justice was a focus," she said. "My parents would point out, 'This isn't fair. This isn't right. How can I change this?' "

Still, she felt nervous as the class prepared to meet with three inmates. All three were serving time for drug offenses. Two were fathers.

"It was very different from what I thought," Reimann said.

"They were straightforward and honest. They didn't have to be asked about what they did. They owned that.

"It was real, like you would want it to be. It brings you to the point that this is a human who has struggles."

And also a human with a desire to make a meaningful contribution, said Sandstone warden Thomas Watson, responding via e-mail.

"They take significant ownership in their projects and it pushes them, in a healthy manner, to show gratitude and redemption," he said.

"Many have spoken about 'karmic value' of being involved in this program, as many of the men have spent a good majority of their lives taking and causing harm to their family and communities. This project has given them an opportunity to give back for their past actions."

They are giving back in an incredible way. The pieces they craft — dinosaurs, monkeys, floppy-eared elephants, SpongeBob, Minnie and Mickey Mouse — are whimsical, detailed, exquisite.

And, always, crocheted with children in mind.

One inmate knew that a child staying at a Ronald McDonald House loved giraffes, so he crocheted one for that child. Others made tiny birds so that the littlest children could hold them as they had blood drawn.

Another inmate stayed up all night securing the pieces of a lion's mane, thread by thread. They even gifted lucky grown-up Shlafer with a Minnesota moose in maroon and gold.

"One little girl just loved unicorns and there was a unicorn," said Eric Johnson, spokesman for Ronald McDonald House Charities, Upper Midwest.

Every time the U students delivered bags of animals to the houses, Johnson said, "they flew off the shelves."

Something 'they could be proud of'

The children weren't alone in their delight. Watson said one of the most meaningful experiences for many of the participating men was seeing pictures of the children who had chosen their crocheted animals.

"Several inmates became emotional and stated this was one of the first or only things in their life they could be proud of."

Shlafer is thrilled with the program's success, too, but she hopes this project will lead to deeper discussions about prison reform and justice.

"It was so powerful for my students to learn how many consequences there are to sometimes very limited decisions," she said. "These are guys who are in for a long period of time, 10, 20, 30 years.

"They made an impact in a way that really challenged the students' assumptions about who is in prison for what and why, raising questions around equity. What are we doing in this country?"

Reimann will be Shlafer's teaching assistant next semester, where she will continue to build her teacher's social media presence around Project Teddy Bear — and continue to collect yarn. She still cries sometimes when she thinks about the men and the joy they bought to children.

"People have a tremendous capacity to change if given the chance and the resources," she said. "They are creating something with another human in mind and giving something back to a community that thinks they are only taking.

"I would love to see this get big. It's an amazing program." 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum