By Jenny Neyman
To the eye, the 21 hats and 28 scarves donated to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank on Nov. 20 are a riot of colors — hot pink to plain gray to variegated shades weaving across the color palette in between. To the touch they’re soft, fuzzy, substantial from the double-knit thickness, and nubby with the neat march of stitches in the various patterns.
Their warming properties extend beyond just heads and necks, and come from more than just the weight of the yarn.
To those who receive the hats and scarves — patrons of the food bank’s services who seem in need of a little bit of extra warmth — they are a snuggly, vividly colored, tangible reminder that someone in their community thinks of them and cares enough to spend their own time and money to make winter a little less chilly.
To the donor and maker of the hats, they’re a bit of a gift to herself, as well each stitch providing her a sense of use, contribution and productivity that is otherwise being eroded, along with her health.
Janet Ollivier, of Kenai, has been knitting since she was 9, taught by her mother, Jaquie Stauffer. The Olliviers were a commercial fishing family when Janet and her brothers were young, living all over Southeast Alaska and needing to come up with their own pursuits, as correspondence schooling doesn’t provide much in the way of organized activities.
“It’s just one of those things that I have just stuck with. It’s nice and soothing,” Ollivier said.
Stauffer’s right-handed, but found that her lefty daughter quickly got the knack for knitting needles. Ollivier figured out for herself how to translate right-handed patterns to her work for her orientation.
“That girl can do fabulous knitting. She’s very, very crafty,” Stauffer said.
And determined, in a way that Stauffer knows all too well. Ollivier, now 49, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago, a disease which Stauffer has been enduring for much longer. Ollivier moved to Kenai to take care of her mother, now 69, three years ago, when the combination of Stauffer’s MS, epilepsy, arthritis, loss of vision and diabetes meant she needed regular assistance. Looking back, Stauffer started noticing similar signs of MS in her daughter. But at the time, she didn’t want to recognize it.
“You know when you have a child or a parent who has the same thing, sometimes both of you look the other way,” Stauffer said.
Ollivier suffered a heart attack two years ago, which precipitated her MS symptoms to flare unmistakably. It’s primary progressing MS, faster-advancing than what Stauffer has.
“Which just gets worse, it doesn’t get better. She doesn’t get breaks in flare-ups like I do,” Stauffer said.
They used to go from their neighborhood near the Pillars along the Kenai Spur Highway all the way into town to Fred Meyer, Stauffer in her wheelchair and Ollivier walking with her. Now walking the two blocks between their homes is a challenge for Ollivier.
Fatigue drains Ollivier’s physical strength. Tremors are encroaching on her dexterity. She had to stop working, and even though she now is in a position of needing to accept help herself, she’s still got a mind to help others. Knitting is a way she can still do that.
“I don’t work anymore, but I feel like you need to give back to the community, too. Yarn isn’t very expensive, and whenever I feel like it I can do it. The only thing MS has done to my hands is causing tremors, but I can still manage the knitting. Even when the tremors are bad, with weakness in my legs, I just sit down and knit,” she said.
She’s got her 10-year-old son to take care of, but even with his home schooling, hours Ollivier once spent working now pool up throughout the day. For as long as she’s able, she lassoes it with yarn and knits it into industriousness.
“Now that she can no longer work she’s got all this extra time on her hands and she wants to make use of it. She also has arthritis, and as she slows down with her hands they’ll stiffen up on her. She keeps up with this to keep her mind and hands and spirits lightened up,” Stauffer said.
Ollivier used to knit just to knit, but last year she heard a public service announcement that Soldotna Elementary School was in need of donated hats for students to wear to recess.
“So I decided — at that time I had a bag full of hats — it was time for them to go, so away they went,” Ollivier said.
When Stauffer’s eyesight was still good enough, she used to make and sell knitted crafts. She suggested that Ollivier do the same, to maybe earn a little cash or at least cover the cost of supplies. But Ollivier wouldn’t have it. After all, people who really needs hats and scarves are probably the least able to spend money on them. Plus, she likes the sense of community the act of knitting and donating gives her. It’s a long tradition she’s proud to be part of.
“I do it to connect with all the knitters of the past. At the Battle of Valley Forge it was donated, hand-knitted socks and clothing that kept the soldiers going, and that sort of thing is what created this country, really. It’s kind of a way to connect back to that,” she said.
Last year she donated 17 hats to the elementary school, all double-knit and generously sized.
“Let’s face it, regular hats just aren’t warm enough. They can turn these up over their ears so it keeps them nice and warm,” Ollivier said.
This year it was 21 hats and 28 scarves to the food bank. She’s already started working on donations for next year, which she’s planning on giving to the Love, INC (In the Name of Christ) family housing program in Kenai.
“I’ve got a big bag I just throw hats in when I finish them. When the bag’s full, usually around Thanksgiving, I donate them,” she said.
It’s a practice she thinks everyone should get into. Maybe not making hats and scarves, as knitting isn’t everyone’s thing, but everyone can make time to make a difference, Ollivier said.
“You can always find little bits of time to help out if you really look,” she said. “You think you don’t have any time to help people, but there’s always something you can do.”