I live in Johannesburg, not far from the Knit-a-Square office, and thought it would be nice to write about the experience of visiting the blanket room for the benefit of overseas knitters and crocheters. I know how lovely it is to get insight into the personal side of the charity one supports and i couldn't wait to experience the sorting, packing and stacking process firsthand when I read about it on the website.
At the outset, let me say that I am a really new member of KAS. I only came across the organisation in January 2017 when I did an online search to find a knitting circle I might join. Reading about Ronda and how she started the project inspired me enormously. Then, coming to the forum and immersing myself in some of the discussions, I knew that this was exactly the kind of community I wanted to belong to. Clearly, the members love knitting for good and are super-generous when it comes to helping children in need.
I should also explain that I am severely sight-impaired and rely on a driver to get to where I want to go. My driver's name is Bongi, so she came along as a volunteer too. We found the KAS office in a nicely-secured office park with good parking outside a large garage door, which provided pleasing light and ventilation for the large, open blanket room beyond. Bongi's first words were, "My, there are a lot of busy people in there!" My first impression, without the benefit of vision, was of a serene interior with gentle, uplifting music playing from a sound system at the far end of the room, and of cool air blowing from a large fan to keep the space feeling dry and fresh. Incidentally, there was no trace of a musty smell after February's flood, and the sunlight coming through the windows on the north side made everything feel bright and cheerful.
Ronda greeted us warmly and offered us tea and somewhere to sit while she oversaw the volunteers who were driving the van out to deliver squares to two of the sewing groups. We were shown how the squares are unpacked from their soft packaging and the details of the senders recorded. A couple of volunteers were grouping squares into matching sizes and assembling bundles of 35 coordinating squares. I learnt how to butterfly the loose threads on a square by feeling how it was done, as it had been impossible to follow the pictorial directions on the website. I also got to finger some of the beautiful hats, hand warmers and soft toys that had been sent in, and marvelled at the amazing colour choices some of the knitters had chosen. I'm a knitter myself but have tended to be very conservative in my selection of yarns. That, i can tell, is going to change!
Finally for today's entry, I want to rave about some of the blankets I saw. Again, I had not been able to see them in photographs displayed on the website, so was eager to get up close and touch some of the finished items. They are, in a word, stunning! Laid out on the floor in a pile like stacked pancakes, they reminded me of exotic tile designs comprising rich mosaics and beautifully textured pieces. Some were set in a grid, while others nestled in cosy companionship with each other, the entire effect being one of eye-catching elegance. But not just eye-catching. I couldn't help but run my fingers over the interesting textures. There is nothing quite like knitted or crocheted fabric. It's squishy and huggable, intricate in its stitchery yet strong and comforting in its expanse. It gave me a warm fuzzy feeling to be in the midst of so much lovingly-crafted handwork and committed teamwork. I shall be reporting back regularly on my visits to Knit-a-Square and I hope I can impart to you how much Ronda and the team in SA value and appreciate your participation.
Until next time, let the warm fuzzy feeling be yours as you stitch away!
Well, September is here and with it some really warm weather! Gone are the boots and jerseys for the volunteers; everyone at the barn yesterday was dressed in bright Knit-a-Square T-shirts, flowery dresses and sandals. The scent of jasmine wafted on the spring air and the room was a-buzz with busy conversation.
I arrived as a visitor was handing over a packet of 20 squares over to Ronda, which, she explained, were knitted by her high school son and daughter. Apparently, knitting for charity counts towards community service hours. The squares which come in from school-age children are sometimes full of imperfections but they still get combined into colourful, warm blankets. After all, even the best knitters in our KAS community were beginners once!
Besides, if squares come in which are really in need of repair, there are lots of volunteers who can lend a hand. When a parcel was opened yesterday to reveal a bunch of squares that had not been cast off, I jumped in with my needles and did what had to be done. The problem is not so much unfinished squares as squares which are finished off to the wrong size, since it is very difficult to combine them neatly into a blanket. In extreme cases, odd-sized squares have to be unravelled and cunningly knitted onto other odd-sized squares to create a gradient or patch effect. And there are even volunteers who can crochet around odd-sized squares to make them all conform to the same dimensions in the end.
But to the news of the day: We were celebrating Athele's birthday and Ronda had bought a delicious chocolate cake for everyone to share. Athele [pronounced Atherlay] has been a volunteer at Knit-a-Square for over 3 years and has just returned from a brief holiday in Ireland where she was visiting a friend. She is well travelled, having spent time in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, but she was struck by the matchless beauty and charm she saw in Ireland and is determined to return there one day to spend a longer time soaking up the atmosphere.
I asked Athele how she had first got involved with Knit-a-Square. She shared that she had long been in the habit of doing what she could for those less fortunate than herself, but that when she moved to Johannesburg, it took her a long time to find a cause which was both appealing and suited to her schedule. Knit-a-Square came to her attention when it was featured in her local newspaper but she initially thought of it only as a charity to knit for. It was when she finally picked up the phone and spoke to Ronda, then visited the barn on an opening day, that she saw the role she could play. With her eye for colour and enjoyment of creating beautiful things with her hands, she focuses on combining squares in aesthetically pleasing ways. Most weeks, she also takes home a bundle or two to sew into a blanket edged with an attractive border.
"I'm selfish like that," she says matter-of-factly. "When people try to say how much they admire me for what I do I feel embarrassed, because I really don't go out of my way. I do this because it brings me pleasure, and I focus on the aspects of the work that I like the most."
Athele is an interesting person in that she is very self-aware and in touch with what works for her. This is, she admits, a product of her own life experience. She had a difficult childhood and is divorced, but she has worked hard to gain a healthy perspective on all these experiences. In fact, when she is not at Knit-a-Square and sewing up blankets, she is a life coach, speaker and author. Her main categories of interest are self-awareness, conscious living, rediscovering the child within and empowering individuals by teaching them to reframe negative experiences in a more positive way.
When I asked her what motivated her to give her time to help those less fortunate than herself, Athele paused and said, "That's an interesting question. My parents weren't involved in charity work but I dreamed of a career in social work. That didn't really work out and I ended up in advertising and public relations. But I think I was always mindful of the fact that I had grown up privileged in a society where so many people had so little. I wanted to give back in a way. So that's why I say this is not all about self-sacrifice and good work. It's about me feeling comfortable with myself and what I have.
"Plus," she adds, dropping to her haunches to count a pile of squares, "I love being part of this amazing community of people. It warms my heart to think of all the wonderful people out there who give their time and skills to our children. It gives me a feeling of connection, like we are all one. So many individuals combining their efforts in such a loving way."
Happy birthday, Athele, and we wish you many more!
Thanks, Gloria. I forgot to include the fact that Athele has two children, a son and a daughter, and two grandchildren. We had such an interesting and wide-ranging discussion that it was hard to condense into a few short paragraphs!
Another incredible installment of Life at the KAS Barn. Thank you for taking the time to introduce us to each and every wonderful volunteer.
Thank you, Leanne. Loved hearing of yet another wonderful lady of KAS SA.
Belated Happy Birthday wishes to Athele.
Thank you Leanne, I must confess I dash in to read your stories whenever you update. Athele is a lovely lady , many thanks to Athele for her support. KAS is very addictive Athele ! Happy Birthday !!
So lovely to read all about Athelé. I see her beautiful work often on FB. She ackieves so much for KAS.
This week we celebrated another birthday at Knit-a-Square, that of Lindi, and much fun was had taking photos of everyone to mark the occasion. There is such a lovely, friendly bond between all the volunteers that simply attending opening days is enough to lift your spirits! So many smiles and hugs, so much admiration of blankets and appreciation for packages sent from across the sea.
For once, Ronda was not inundated by phone calls and visitors dropping in to talk about receiving blankets or sewing up squares. I pulled up a chair in front of her desk and we shared a hot cup of tea with a poppy seed muffin on the side. She began to tell me about various companies that had been involved with Knit-a-Square over the years, supporting us as part of their corporate social responsibility [CSR]. It was an interesting story and one worth sharing.
Early on in the life of KAS, a company called G4S came on board as a sponsor and provided Knit-a-Square with a van. Being a global company concerned with cash in transit, it has a large fleet which it maintains and insures. While G4S no longer pays our rent or provides funds for us, the use of the van has been allowed to continue. Naturally, this is of enormous value and we are very grateful.
The next company to offer financial help was the health care giant GSK. They loved the concept of Knit-a-Square and linked up with us for their Mandela Day programmes. Under the banner of Medlemon, the work of our overseas knitters and local volunteers was showcased, giving their brand a "feel-good" quality and us some much-needed funds. However,this association only lasted a couple of years, leaving us without a corporate sponsor again.
"The difficulty with CSR,"says Ronda, "is that there is a government policy in place that favours public benefit organisations with a BBBEE component." BBBEE stands for broad-based black economic empowerment. It is a policy aimed at skilling up previously-disadvantaged members of society by means of training courses, apprenticeships and outreach programmes to schools. In essence, if we were to build in this element, it would mean, for instance, running classes or offering formal coaching to black businesswomen. Without a salaried staff, however, this is impossible, and so we remain under the radar, so to speak, with little to offer companies other than the opportunity for their employees to be of service in the community.
Even so, Ronda was approached by IBM a year ago to see if they could get involved. They had in mind a three-year project utilising their staff and skills. The project began slowly with some of their employees coming in to help with the loading of data into the computer and looking at ways to update our systems. More recently, we received a substantial financial donation and an indication that they would be able to help with website development. This is very encouraging and we look forward to reporting further progress down the line.
"There is another exciting opportunity in the wings," says Ronda with a secretive smile, "but it's too soon to make any announcements. All I can say is that a big company approached us with an idea, and if it goes ahead we will become a lot more widely known than we currently are!"
Meanwhile, we are hugely grateful for the kind generosity of our regular supporters and those who send once-off donations via Paypal. I am helping Ronda to keep in touch with you all and have seen some of the Paypal notifications, which is why I can thank you so enthusiastically! Every cent that comes in makes a difference. We operate in a tough economic climate where most of our volunteers are unemployed and, as I said, we don't have what CSR departments are looking for in a public benefit organisation, yet we forge on with vision and determination!
Here is a photo of our group celebrating Lindi's birthday!
Happy birthday to the ladies and thank you for the honest and deep report.