FROM PRISON WITH LOVE A NETWORK PROGRAM CROCHETING INITIATIVE
“This program not only embodies the Network Community Philosophy, it demonstrates another way in which inmates within our correctional facilities are giving back to the Community.” -New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
In early summer 2014, Network had the great pleasure of presenting twenty beautiful hand-crocheted baby blankets to WIN (Women in Need, Inc.) to give to mothers and babies residing at one of their shelters in the Bronx. WIN transforms the lives of New York City homeless women and children by providing a holistic solution of safe housing, critical services and ground-breaking programs they need to succeed on their own. Happily, in 2016 the project continues, with Otisville Network Community members energetically committed to producing blankets for homeless women at shelters in both the Bronx and Harlem. They are also working on creating beautiful crocheted caps for women who are going through chemo-therapy.
BACKGROUND The project has been a labor of love on the part of the members of Network’s residential therapeutic community at Otisville Correctional Facility in Orange County, New York. Each day in the Network Community Day room, Network men have used their free time to take up yarn and needles to crochet squares in pastel colors. These delicate squares are then sewn by the men into magnificent baby blankets to be sent to homeless mothers with new babies or infants who are struggling in the face of poverty.
The Baby Blanket Project: Perspective from Behind the Walls By Alejo Rodriguez, Project Founder and Coordinator
A group of men in Otisville Correctional Facility’s Network Therapeutic Community have spent the last two years learning how to crochet baby blankets. It’s an unlikely hobby occurring in an unlikely place, but when those volunteering for the project heard that the goal was to create blankets for underprivileged mothers, the question of spending time learning to crochet was a no-brainer. The blankets would go to WIN (Women in Need, Inc.), an agency that serves 8,000 homeless women a year in New York City. “I wish there were more we could do,” says Arecio Collado, project participant, “but this, keeping the babies warm, is a good beginning.”
The Baby Blanket Project came about in response to interest in my own crocheting activity. I was working on a scarf when several guys in the Network Community asked me what I was doing. I was surprised when one of men said he’d like to crochet himself a blanket to stay warm. At first I thought, these guys are serious. My second thought was No way! A blanket for a 6’1” guy weighing about 210 lbs would take all winter! Then again, smaller blankets would be doable. If my fellow community members were serious about learning to crochet, I could teach them basic patterns to create small squares and when enough of them were made, we could join them together almost like a patchwork quilt. They would be baby blankets and could be donated to charity. At our next Network Community Meeting, I asked how many guys were interested and 20 out of 50 signed up. Anne Williams, Network Executive Director, was enthusiastic when she learned about the proposal. The Baby Blanket Project would not only promote cooperative work among Network Community members but would also offer an opportunity to give back to society. That idea is embodied in the Network Philosophy: Network is a positive environment for human development in a caring community where individuals can help themselves and each other. Community members work together to establish and maintain a growth-filled environment.
Funding for the project came initially from the Lifers and Long-Termers Organization. The Otisville Lifers are well-known for providing positive programs for the general population. With strong support from Superintendent Kathleen Gerbing, Deputy Superintendent Alicia Smith-Roberts and Superintendents of Security Gene Niles and Peter Early and other Executive Team members, the project received the go-ahead from Acting Deputy Commissioner Catherine Jacobson at DOCCS Central Office. Outreach by Network Support Services led to many donations of yarn and/or money from good-hearted citizens in the outside community who found the project touching and worthwhile and believe in second chances for those sincerely dedicated to turning their lives around.
There are few initiatives that could actually claim a win-win-win situation for all. For me, the Baby Blanket Project is a dream come true. I learned to crochet 25 years ago, initially just because I wanted to make my own kufis (Islamic head covering). I was in Auburn at the time and asked a friend of mine who knew how to crochet if he would teach me. He agreed and we started with basic single crochet stitches. On the fourth or fifth day, he was gone. I asked around but no one seemed to know where he was. A week or two passed before I saw him again. At first, I didn’t recognize him, for he had lost 30 lbs or more. We walked the yard, we talked and he confided in me that he was HIV positive. Back in the 1980s, people didn’t know much about the disease and would ostracize people who were HIV+. I couldn’t turn my back on my friend. I didn’t know much about the virus back then, but I was pretty sure I couldn’t be infected from crocheting. In 1991, I was transferred to Eastern Correctional Facility and a year later learned that my friend had passed away. And now that we have started BBP, through teaching others how to crochet, God willing, his crocheting has been able to live through others and reach society, the women, the babies.
Eddie Wllliams, Jr.is another pioneer behind the crocheting. When asked what the project has meant to him, he said “The Baby Blanket Project has given me a chance to serve others in a way that I had not imagined. What I could not have imagined was the possibility of providing a safe place of warmth and comfort for the infants.” It has been an amazing feeling to be able to work on this project. Acts of charity seem to build and strengthen character and also remind us of our shared humanity. There is little doubt that in the act of giving lies a lesson about virtue that all people can learn from. But for the Network men in the project, Ronald Horton has perhaps said it best: “I never did anything like this before. All my life, I used my hands to hurt people. When I crochet, it’s a good feeling to know that my hands are now helping instead.” For all those men in the Network Community, the crocheting has been a healing. It represents an offender’s commitment to the rehabilitation and reconciliatory process and his pledge to use his time to build a better future.