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Kids knit to make amends

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Knitting
About two dozen residents at the Hennepin County Home School participate in a knitting program, which is meant to be a therapeutic activity.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Among the 100 or so teen offenders living at the Hennepin County Home School in Minnetonka, about two dozen are knitting hats and scarves.  On a recent day, four teenagers -- two boys and two girls -- are seated around tables with bags of yarn and knitting needles.

Toni makes it look kind of easy.

"You just put this needle behind there, grab this piece of string, wrap it, pull it through and just take this off," she said. "Tighten it and then move on to the next one."

Hats and scarves
Some of the items created by the students at the Hennepin County Home School in Minnetonka.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Toni -- the young people here go by first names only because they are juveniles -- used to knit before she came here.  She said she doesn't know how it works, technically speaking, she just does it.

Others in the group still need a little help.  Then they turn to correctional officer known as Ms. Yang.

On the outside, she is Sandra Yang.  But around the youth she goes by Ms. Yang.  She says it's an authority thing.

Yang, an experienced knitter, started the knitting program at the home school a few years ago.

"It's kind of therapeutic for them," said Yang.  "Because I know from the past, guys had been saying, when they'd get in trouble they go and crochet, and the kids would come out and say, 'I'm sorry, I wasn't really focused or thinking.' So it helps them a lot by refocusing them, and it teaches them fine motor skills and to be really patient, when they're not patient." 

"It helps them a lot by refocusing them. And it teaches them fine motor skills, and to be really patient, when they're not patient."

Yang says the knitting slowly caught on.  It took a while for the teens to see that it was kind of cool to be able to make something that could be worn, like a hat.  

Last year, she was approached by a colleague who said her church was looking to donate those hats to people in African countries. 

"My first reaction was, why would we make hats for Africa?  It's hot there, isn't it?" she said.

Through further research, Yang discovered that the hats were needed for newborn babies. They lose a lot of heat through their heads in the first 24 hours after they're born.  And tens of thousands of newborns throughout Africa die annually because of that. 

Cedric, who believes that knitting is not the most manly activity, says he's glad to knit hats for a good cause.  Plus he says it helps him in other ways.

"It kind of makes me feel good," said Cedric.  "Because I can't be around my little brothers and stuff.  They've been gone, they've been adopted for a few years now.  Now, I feel like I got somebody younger than me to look after to help them.  It kind of helps me fill the void where my little brothers and sisters are supposed to be."

Cedric adds that if his parents had shown him how to knit earlier in his life, maybe he wouldn't have wound up here.

Knitting needles
Participants have been knitting hats and scarves to be donated to charity.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Across the table, Cheyenne is knitting the initial stages of a blue scarf.  Her hands and arms bear a series of homemade tattoos.  Cheyenne also finds some deeper meaning in the twists of yarn that become scarves and hats.

"It just means that, people are knowing that they're getting care from other people," said Cheyenne.  "And giving them warmth."

This year Cheyenne and the other knitters made more than 200 hats for newborns.  It's an accomplishment they're all proud of.  

Ryan is a young man with broad shoulders and thick fingers more accustomed to fixing car engines than knitting.  But he's doing his best on a blue fun-fur scarf.

Ryan says at first, he didn't want to start knitting.  

"But, it's just like, expanding your horizons and basically taking risks on things you really never knew you would like, and stuff like that," said Ryan. 

Barb Cook is the volunteer coordinator for the home school.  She says there aren't many similar programs in  juvenile facilities around the country.  But Cook says others should look into it.

"I think so often young people, and adults as well, kind of feel overwhelmed, like there's nothing they can really do to impact society or different cultures," said Cook.  "I see this as a bigger picture of -- just a simple act of knitting a hat, possibly saving a life is, in my mind huge."

Cook says since news of the knitting program spread to the public, they've received hundreds of skeins of donated yarn.  And she says they welcome more donations of yarn, needles and other knitting accessories.  They've set a new goal to double their production of hats and scarves in the next year.