Prayer shawls and blankets bond Sanford volunteers

Committed volunteers once knit in person, now keep knitting shawls from home

Darlene Colwill sits in a hospice house chair with a striped, knitted prayer shawl over her shoulders.

A prayer shawl is a knitted blanket created to add comfort, in addition to warmth, for those who receive them. They are intended to be gifts from the heart, made by people who are praying for the welfare of those who receive them.

While Sanford Health can’t accept donated shawls at this time because of rules put in place to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, making them continues to be a creative and useful way to fend off the boredom of social distancing for committed volunteers.

There will be a day when the shawls made now will reach those intended to receive them. In the meantime, volunteers keep knitting knowing eventually the fruit of their efforts will find a home. Those who have run out of yarn continue to give in other ways.

“Some of the knitters sew and we’ve encouraged them to sew masks for our non-clinical staff,” said Nona Bixler, director of Volunteer Services at Sanford. “Some don’t sew but then we get questions like ‘Can I make a batch of cookies and bring them over to the staff?’ They’re being very creative in the ways they want to help.”

Before the pandemic changed the way we interact, a group would gather in a circle every Friday at the Good Samaritan Society-Prairie Creek Lodge in Sioux Falls. The dozen or so women made prayer shawls and blankets for Sanford patients.

What was an empty cart at 1 p.m.  at one end of the line of chairs was full by the time the staff brought the afternoon snacks.

This is how it worked every Friday. The basket was full by the time the lemon bars arrived.

The group includes people like Lou Ellen Johnson, who is 99, and Rosalie Ovenden, 96, who is a Navy veteran. It’s clear this tradition is too much fun to end. When everything is back to normal, those Friday sessions will resume.

“It’s nice being able to socialize while we’re working on the shawls and blankets,” said Ovenden, who helps Arlette Villaume coordinate the supply of fleece fabric used for the blankets. “We talk about many things. Maybe someone has a question about something. Several people will respond and try to help them out. It’s just a real nice gathering time.”

Prayer shawls pull people together

The mutual benefit is unmistakable.

“It is very rewarding,” said Mary George, who grew up on a farm near Madison, South Dakota. “We get just as much out of this as the people who get them. Maybe more. We’re socializing here — we’re having fun. We all look forward to Fridays. Everybody has been so darn nice about it.”

This group at The Lodge is one of several in the community who collectively form an intricate network of volunteers who send shawls, blankets, caps and quilts out to those who can use them.

These comfort items will eventually be given to veterans and others who are in pastoral, palliative or hospice care with Sanford Health. It also includes babies, children and their mothers.

Rochell Pederson became interested in creating prayer shawls when she received one from her sister’s church in Arkansas. Pederson had recently had a fire in her home.

In gratitude she began making her own shawls and sending them to her sister’s church. That led to making them for her own church and then making them for Sanford Health patients.

“After having been in a position where I felt challenged by what life put before me, it was nice to know that others were thinking of me and praying for me and encouraging me to keep going,” Pederson said. “I just decided this was the way I was going to pay it forward.”

All that yarn

On the surface it might seem like a simple way to brighten a day, and in many ways it is. But what about all that yarn? And how does one coordinate a network of knitters?

Sandra Reinesch is registered nurse who works in palliative care for Sanford. She and the palliative care team wanted to honor the veterans they see through the course of their duties. That led to Reinesch seeking out members of the volunteer crew to help supply veterans with shawls.

That’s where it started. In time, and with help from the Sanford Health Gift Shop and the Sanford Veterans Fund, she was able to buy two years’ worth of red, white and blue yarn.

There are many ways to measure yarn. By weight, for instance. Or distance, or volume. But time? Two years, it turns out, is a lot of yarn.

“I was able to contact a company in Canada that supplied us with the yarn — it was the only company that could supply us with as much red, white and blue yarn as we needed,” Reinesch said. “Now we’ve been able to give the veterans in our care a red, white and blue prayer shawl.”

Every time the care team provides a veteran a shawl, they also hand out a card.

“We celebrate your strength, honor your courage and remember your sacrifice,” it reads.

Red, white and blue

At meetings with a patient regarding palliative care, members of the team learn about their patients as people. When they learn they’re talking to a veteran, they bring a red, white and blue prayer shawl the next time they visit.

“It’s been such an amazing experience for us to be able to thank these veterans by providing them these shawls,” Reinesch said. “Seeing the reaction has been so special. We’ve seen tears so many times in appreciation.”

The shawl designs are left up to the knitter, so they’re all different. It individualizes what is already many times a personal experience.

“It’s powerful to be a part of this,” Reinesch said. “I’m so grateful we can provide them. We’ve had people that request their prayer shawls be on their casket. That blew my mind.”

The Friday visit to Good Samaritan Society-Prairie Creek was a reminder that hearts and hands are a vital part of a caring process.

The fabric the women were using to make the fleece-tie blankets come in brightly colored print patterns. Funds are supplied through the Children’s Miracle Network and blankets go to Children’s Voice.

Keep knitting straight ahead

Reviews from the women of the patterns of the fleeces ranged from “adorable” to “cute” to “darling.” Knitter Alta Gaarder spotted one with lots of hearts and said “If that doesn’t say ‘I love you,’ I don’t know what would.”

Gaarder lends out knitting equipment and lessons both at The Lodge and at Holy Cross, where she and her husband Don go to church. She has “a stash of needles” she offers to beginners interested in helping out.

One of the beauties of prayer shawls, she will tell you, is that beginners do not have to learn the more complex maneuvers associated with socks and mittens.

“You just keep knitting straight ahead with the prayer shawls,” she said. “It’s always fun when someone wants to learn.”

Kindness, comfort and shawls

There are nearly 40 knitters whose efforts end up in the hands of those who can use comfort.

In many cases, those who knit the shawls don’t ever see those who receive them. Bixler is a knitter herself who has also played a role in building the team. She has seen where the shawls end up.

“One of our volunteers had fallen and broke her hip and ended up at a nursing home for recovery,” Bixler said. “I went to visit her and a prayer shawl our knitters made was around her shoulders. It brought tears to my eyes knowing that. Our knitters are touching people they don’t even know. But those people they’re touching feel the comfort, they feel the embrace when they put the prayer shawls around their shoulders.”

Pederson makes shawls for both people she knows and, via the Sanford shawl ministry, people she does not know. Those shawls come with different sets of prayers.

“I’m still putting the same thoughts in — I ask for the person getting it to get comfort, courage determination and peace of heart,” she said. “It’s the softness of the yarn that pulls you in. You want to make it into something beautiful.”

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Posted In Community, Coronavirus, Senior Services, Veterans, Wellness

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