SANDSTONE, Minn. — Row by row, stitch by stitch, the toys took shape.

Green dragons and pink pigs and a bunny with multicolored stripes on its ears where the skein of yarn started to run low.

It took time to crochet each one. Hours. Days. But the men incarcerated at the federal prison in Sandstone have time. Some choose to spend that time making gifts for little kids they'll never meet.

In a visiting area of the low-security federal facility, Luke Keller's beige prison uniform was offset by the colorful pile of stuffed toys on a nearby table. A zebra. A fox. A monkey hugging its babies tight in its fuzzy arms. A frog wearing swim trunks.

"A lot of us are in prison because we prioritized our own selfish interests," Keller said. "Being a part of this program, I guess, is the opposite. We're making a sick child's day."

In Project Teddy Bear, it's not what you did to get here that matters. It's what you do next.

The next stitch, the next skein, the next child who smiles because there's a toy made just for them at a Ronald McDonald House in the Twin Cities.

Sandstone isn't the only prison that offers crochet as a recreational activity. But these men decided years ago that they wanted to give all those toys and blankets and booties away to sick kids and their siblings. Which they did, thanks to other Minnesotans who stepped up for years to donate yarn, stuffing and patterns to the teddy bear project.

Tying this thread of kindness together is Prof. Rebecca Shlafer, her students, their community and one spacious minivan.

"I hope a project like this helps people understand that the folks that we've locked up in this country are so much more than the worst thing they've ever done," said Shlafer, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Pediatrics.

She teaches an honors course on the effects of mass incarceration on families. Around 2016, she fielded a call from Sandstone, asking whether the children's hospital might be interested in some handmade stuffed animals.

Ever since, Shlafer and her students have collected yarn for Sandstone. They've visited the prison, met the makers and listened to their stories. When Shlafer posted an appeal on social media this year, donations overflowed her office and garage.

Each donation starts with a conversation about where the yarn will go and why. Which sometimes leads to deeper conversations about mass incarceration in the land of the free and the home of nearly 2 million behind bars.

Doing something for someone else, and expecting nothing in return, "is such a good thing for their minds and bodies and spirits," Shlafer said. "They learn a new skill. It's not about an employment skill. It's the human kindness of it."

She delivered the latest load of yarn, Poly-Fil stuffing and patterns to Sandstone in June and drove back to the Twin Cities with bags of completed crochet projects for the sick children and their siblings.

Keller volunteers as an organizer for Project Teddy Bear, sorting and distributing the yarn and making sure that all of it comes back as a toy or gift for the little ones.

The Ronald McDonald House charity offers families of sick children a place to stay during treatment. Project Teddy Bear creations not only go to the children who are ill; all their siblings can have a toy, too.

When one of the creations is a big hit — like a recent stuffed giraffe — the charity lets Sandstone know. Three brand-new giraffes peeked out of the pile next to Keller, ready for the next delivery.

"I believe that having a creative outlet for our energy helps keep us out of trouble and the drama while we are in prison," said Keller, who wrote a few thoughts down before the interview, including this one. "I have created habits that will stay with me. Such as thinking about others before myself."

He was 23 years old when he was sentenced to 36 years in prison on drug-related charges. That was 18 years ago.

Shlafer will begin collecting more yarn soon to keep up with the surge in demand for cuddly giraffes. All donations will be welcome, but if you're hesitating over yarn choices, Keller said the men could use more red, black and white yarn, as well as any shade of yellow you think would look good on a giraffe.

When there's enough yarn to fill a minivan, Shlafer will head back to Sandstone.

"These guys have so much capacity for good," she said. "We have so much talent locked away."