Hooked on helping

The community spirit is alive with a group of crocheters in Alberta.

When the call went out to create crocheted sets for babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), hundreds of people stepped up with their crochet hooks at the ready.

“The response has been beyond our expectations,” says Sharon MacKenzie, a registered nurse in the NICU at the Misericordia Community Hospital. “We have over 350 people in our NICU Crocheters Facebook group now.”

When Sharon and several fellow nurses in the NICU at the Misericordia hospital put out a call on social media in December to help create crocheted sets for their tiny patients, 30 people joined their Facebook group to create Christmas sets. The group grew, and for Valentine’s Day, members were able to stitch blankets and hats for 100 babies in seven NICUs in Edmonton, St. Albert, Grande Prairie, Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. While the membership is primarily people within Alberta, there are a few helping hands from out of province.

Group member Apryl Hatt from Edmonton created these four Valentine’s sets.

For Easter, the group expanded to include the NICU at the Red Deer Regional Hospital. Sharon expects more than 100 babies will get the sets, some of which feature hats with bunny ears.

“When you’re hooked on crocheting, you’re hooked,” says Sharon. “It’s wonderful to know you’re making something that’s going to a good cause.”

Sharon believes the fact that one in 10 babies in Alberta is born premature gives people a connection to NICUs. Sharon’s own son, who is now six years old, spent time in the NICU, and she says it’s because of him that she works in the unit.

“Almost everyone knows someone who has had a baby in a NICU, so the units and their special patients have a special place in people’s hearts,” says Sharon.

Suzanne McCarthy saw a news story about the group and joined right away.

“My son was born two months premature in 1987,” says Suzanne. “I was living in Fort McMurray at the time. He had to stay in the hospital for a month.”

Suzanne remembers how much support she received from the staff and community. She still has some of the things she received back then.

“When I saw the story, I knew I wanted to be involved,” says Suzanne. “I picture the families keeping what I make as a keepsake, so I put everything in me to make the sets as nice as possible. That’s my own personal challenge.”

This is one of the six Easter sets Suzanne made.

Like many people, Suzanne learned to crochet from her grandma. “She told me it takes a lot of determination, but once you’ve made something, the satisfaction you get will last a lifetime,” says Suzanne. “She was right. I’ve crocheted throughout my life. I’m passionate about it!”

Suzanne in her craft room — it shows her passion for crocheting.

Sharon and her co-creators, Kathy Lilly and Shelley Cox, update the announcement at the top of the group’s Facebook page to let people know what holiday they’re currently working on. They also share the size range for the sets. Sets typically are a hat and blanket, but sometimes people also make a matching stuffie.

“Halloween will be our next group project. Until then, members are welcome to make patterns of their choice, themed or not,” says Sharon. “As the sets are donated, we will collect them and continue to provide them to NICUs throughout Alberta.”

People in the group have stepped up to be community liaisons who help co-ordinate the needs of the different hospitals. They also find out how many of the sets their hospital needs and work to make sure the number is met.

"I am most impressed with the skills of these ladies! I'm grateful for the group's willingness to share, encourage each other and work on something amazing to donate,” says Sharon. “I am humbled that so many people are willing to give their time and skills without the direct benefit of seeing what they made on the babies."

Each set takes hours to create. Exactly how long depends on the experience of the crocheter and the complexity of the pattern. Sharon says each of her seven Easter sets took her approximately five hours.

Since the sets are going to such fragile patients, the crocheters need to follow rules:

  • Adhere to Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act and Health Information Act.
  • Provide the sets to the hospitals a minimum of two weeks before distribution.
  • Provide the sets to Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary three weeks in advance.
  • Pick patterns that are not lacy with lots of holes.
  • Wash the sets in baby-friendly or sensitive soaps.
  • Avoid crocheting around pets or letting pets sleep on the sets.
  • Refrain from smoking around the sets.

One lady told Sharon that because of the no smoking rule, she’s replacing smoking with crocheting.

“It gives me goose bumps knowing I’m helping families,” says Suzanne. “I hope my work and the group also inspire others to crochet as well. I love to see work from beginners to experts.”

Sharon says there aren’t words to describe the parents’ reactions to receiving the sets. When a mom is holding her baby and she explains it came from a volunteer, tears well up. It’s a powerful reaction.

“I’m looking forward to making more sets for the babies,” says Suzanne.

Sharon has ambitious hopes for the group, such as helping more NICUs in Alberta and maybe even expanding to help those in other provinces. 

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