Fifteen years ago, my hiking friend, Rosie Guadarrama, walked the grounds of Chautauqua in New York and was delighted by the sight of hand-crafted dolls, each individually designed with unique faces and personalities. They had been put on display by Susan McKee, the founder of Knitting for Peace, a movement of volunteer handcrafters who created soft, cuddly dolls for children who had little and who lived in difficult conditions.
At an information session McKee shared her “dream,” as well as patterns for the dolls and instructions about how to knit them up, with the idea that they would be given to anyone who could use them to comfort a needy child. Returning to Southern California, Guadarrama got in touch with a local knitting group and asked if they were interested. They were and immediately began putting together the dolls.
“At first, I just wanted to be involved in the movement and share the vision that Susan McKee shared, Guadarrama said. “But now, after making the dolls and giving them away, it has a whole different meaning.”
Knitting4Peace gives the knitted items to those involved in mission work, mainly in places like Africa, South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and domestically, as with the Pine Ridge Reservation. The dolls are knitted according to a set of instructions, but are individualized with the handcrafter’s choice of colors and by the faces they add. They are meant to give comfort and to give the children something to hold.The dolls are created with a variety of skin tones and children are invited to choose the one they want.
In 2010, after the big Haitian earthquake, Guadarrama had an opportunity to see the dolls in action, when the First United Methodist Church of Riverside called for volunteers to travel to Haiti for ten days and to help reconstruct a dental clinic that had been destroyed. Ten volunteers bonded and received training for the mission. Rosie decided to take the Peace Dolls as the perfect gift to the children who had lost so much in the disaster. She also had an idea. At “Mission U,” a series of three day classes for Methodist women, she posted a sign on a small table asking for donations of yarn and knitting needles to take to Haiti so she could teach women how to knit. She was overwhelmed by yarn and knitting needles piled so high on the table that they spilled onto the floor. She ended up with ten boxes of colorful yarns to take.
“The men in the group were not happy about my idea,” she said. “They didn’t think anyone would be interested in learning to knit and complained when I asked everyone to take one of the boxes when we flew to Haiti. Of course, the men were also carrying tools and supplies, but they did it.”
The primary mission was to work on rebuilding the clinic but while in Haiti, they did set aside a few hours before a church service and put out the invitation for women to come early to learn to knit. As Guadarrama waited nervously, wondering whether anyone would show up, a group of women sashayed in. “The only way I can describe it, they sashayed in, all attitude and flounce,” she said. And they loved it. The first knitting session was such a success that four hours passed before they realized that “Church had been cancelled.” The ladies continued to meet every night in the balcony, even on the day that the volunteers were scheduled to fly home.
While there, Guadarrama had an opportunity to give the dolls to the children at a local school. They started the with youngest students and progressed through the older grades. They also set aside dolls for those who were absent or ill.
As she left the classroom, a woman who had been watching from the doorway, approached and asked if she might have a doll for herself. When Guadarrama gently told her the dolls were only for children, she burst into tears and a translator relayed that the woman had lost all three of her children in the earthquake. “So I said of course you can have a doll and I thought, you should have three of them!’” But the grieving mother only wanted one that she could hold.
After returning to California, the mission team continued to work for the Haitian dental clinic, searching for and sending back a dental chair and an examination table, along with medical supplies. And the knitting project had been such a success, the team wondered if it could be replicated in Mexico. So the following year, Rosie and the team took the remaining yarn to Calexico where they taught not just a group of women to knit, but two teenaged boys.
“When you give away the dolls, the kids get so excited, you can see it in the faces of the children who have nothing,” Guadarrama reflected. “And then they ask if they can have a doll for a sibling. It’s very touching,” she added. “You are giving them something to hold on to, something that’s yours, something unique and different. It is not food or water, but something for the soul.”
“Knitting for peace started as a dream and has transformed into a movement touching every state in the nation and reaches out to South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and even to our own native American Reservations.” Its handcrafted items now include blankets, scarves, hats, mittens, even prayer shawls, according to the need. And now it is adding “diversity” to the mix, beyond racial diversity, but toward inclusion of all genders, ethnicities, the lgbt community, working deliberately and intentionally to increase the diversity in its Board of Directors and within the Peace Pods.