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Vt. female inmates crochet hats for homeless

By John Curran
Associated Press / November 27, 2010

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SWANTON, Vt.—At Northwest State Correctional Facility, Yolanda Slothower is more than Inmate No. 57640.

She's part of "the Crochet Club," a group of women who turn donated yarn into hats, scarves and mittens to be given to Vermont shelters and child-care facilities over the holidays.

The program, started three years ago by a worker at the state Agency of Human Services, solicits donations of yarn, cardboard boxes of which are then forwarded to the women's prison in Swanton.

There, about a dozen women participating in the voluntary program use crochet hooks to fashion colorful head- and hand-warmers for distribution to homeless shelters, battered women's shelters and other agencies.

"Some do it just for something to do," said Mark Prest, recreation coordinator at the prison. "But a lot of them say they really enjoy it because they're giving back to the community. They're doing something to help people. It's their way of doing something maybe to amend for why they're here."

Slothower, 32, is serving a 3-to-15 year sentence for dealing heroin. She signed up for the crocheting program because she already knew how to crochet, and liked the idea of doing some good while behind bars.

When she's done her day job in the automotive shop at the prison, she picks up her crochet hooks and gets busy -- usually while watching television in a day room. It helps pass the time, and lets her feel like she's giving back to the community.

"If we play cards, we've got a crochet project with us. It's just constant. It seems like everything we do, we're able to crochet while we're doing it," she said Tuesday in an interview in the prison gym.

The program evolved from one that solicited donated hats, scarves and mittens for a WCAX-TV holiday promotion called "Mitties for Kiddies."

Laurie Hurlburt, a secretary in the Agency of Human Services office in Waterbury, began appealing for donations of yarn that could be made into winter accessories. Word of mouth led to an outpouring of donations.

"It's just been unbelievable, the yarn that's come in. Right now, there's six huge garbage bags full (in my office). We come in the morning and there's more bags."

The yarn goes north to the sprawling prison complex near St. Albans, where beginning in August, the prisoners start creating, in anticipation of the year-end holidays. They can't use knitting needles; they're banned because they could be used as weapons. The crochet hooks, on the other hand, have no sharp tips.

"It's usually a social thing," said inmate Melissa Martin. "We sit downstairs at a table, a group of us. It's like a crochet club. We just sit there and kibitz," she said.

Martin, 47, of Bennington, is midway through a one-year sentence for domestic assault.

She's one of the fastest workers in the club, turning in a new set of scarves and hats almost daily. Recently, she started keeping a written log of the time she spends at it -- which amounted to 60 hours in a two-week period.

Martin, who was taught how to crochet by her great-grandmother, thinks about her when she's doing it.

The finished products are shipped back to Waterbury and distributed from there. In all, about a half dozen shelters will share in the crocheted items this year.

Among the recipients: The Lamoille Family Center, in Morrisville, which will include the crocheted items in its annual Family Project, scheduled for Dec. 18. In it, families in need that commit to two hours of community service get to pick and choose from tables of toys, games, puzzles and other items.

This year, the free items will include some of the prison-crocheted hats, scarves and mittens.

"We think it's wonderful," said Becky Gonyea, development director for the Family Center.

The prison superintendent, David Turner, said it's constructive work that fits in with the state's interest of having offenders do something positive as part of their rehabilitation.

"They really enjoy it. It's something they look forward to every year. They go at it with such a fever, it's unbelievable. It's almost like no matter how much yarn you give them, they'll use it up," Turner said.

The prisoners want the program to be expanded to a year-round activity.

"The ladies said `Why can't we keep getting yarn all year long, so we can make cancer quilts, lap blankets for the elderly?' They're just coming up with these great ideas," Hurlburt said.

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Editor's Note: Donated yarn can be mailed to Laurie Hurlburt, Vermont Agency of Human Services, Secretary's Office, 103 South Main St., First Floor, 5 North, Waterbury, Vt., 05671.