By REBECCA SCHWAB
OBSERVER Staff Writer
A group of Grape Belt Seniors knits for newborns to 98-year-olds.
OBSERVER Photo by Matt Panebianco
Pictured, from left, are: Mildred Jankowski, Nancy Kelley, Josie Christopher, Louise Kowal, Nancy Hutchinson, Rita Stonefoot, Rosalie Campbell, Beatrice Lamb, Ann Saeli, Shirley Fendinger and Margaret Koch. Not pictured: Alice Lord, Nance Szymanowicz, Betty Crowell, Patty Babcock and satellite members Trudy Pacos and Beula Einhouse.
Every Thursday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., the meeting room at St. John's Church on Central Avenue in Dunkirk is full of happy murmurs, clicking needles and charitable spirit. That is where a dozen or more seniors meet every week to knit caps and booties, lap robes and prayer shawls for community members in need.
The ladies themselves occupy two tables, with skeins of yarn and half-knitted projects spread out in front of them. Another table is piled with finished shawls, blankets and booties, many of them adorned with satin ribbons or scalloped edges. Tote bags of yarn lean against table legs, with more completed projects draped across chair backs. A sideboard along the wall holds the ladies' coffee and refreshments, well-deserved treats for the women working so hard to keep the local community clothed and comfortable.
The entire time these seniors talk about their organization and craftwork, their hands never stop moving. Their fingers continue to loop and wrap and pull and twist their yarn, deft movements that seem almost automatic, evidence that their talent has been developed over years of hard and detailed work. When the ladies were questioned about just how long they have actually been doing this, they looked at each other with cocked heads.
"Well," said expert crocheter and Fredonia resident Beatrice Lamb, "many years."
"Yes," added member Louise Kowal, who lives in Cassadaga, "many is a good number."
Senior knitter Margaret Koch, of Dunkirk, explained that the group started by doing 7 x 9 squares, and put them together to make lap robes. Since then, membership has grown, along with the height of colorful stacks of tiny sweaters and matching caps.
Rosalie Campbell, a resident of Silver Creek and another talent of the group, said they've collected new members through newspaper announcements and the like, but also by word of mouth.
"I was friends with Marge (Koch)," she said, "and I told my friend Shirley (Fendinger)."
This group of spunky seniors started elsewhere, though. The Grape Belt Seniors used to meet at St. Anthony's in Fredonia, along with other seniors who held exercise classes and played cards. When the rent there was raised for the seniors, though, those who participated in different activities split up, with each group finding its own new home. Nancy Kelley, Dunkirk resident and spokesperson for the knitting circle, along with group member and Fredonia resident Patty Babcock, thought their congregation would welcome the ladies. Now St. John's is their comfortable new meeting place, with plenty of room to knit, wide windows that welcome the sunshine, and storage space for their creations. The ladies each bring $1 per meeting, which goes to St. John's as a donation to help with parish expenses.
Before meeting at St. John's, however, the group worked temporarily in the Sheridan home of Ann Saeli, one of the knitting circle's newer members.
"We had a beautiful dog that greeted us at Ann's," said Shirley Fendinger, another Sheridan resident. "Ranger checked all of our knitting bags, looking for food. I bet he misses us."
Ranger may have been disappointed, but residents at the County Home and brand-new babies at Brooks Hospital are never let down by the Grape Belt Seniors. They regularly send beautiful, hand-crafted items to each facility, making sure everyone is warm and cozy.
"We made over a hundred pairs of booties two years ago," said Kelley. "They went to the County Home."
And although most of their knitted artwork stays in the community, recently they sent a shoulderette to a woman in Pennsylvania for her 98th birthday.
"She's the minister's mother-in-law," explained Kelley.
For those unfamiliar with shoulderettes, they are an ingenious cross between a shawl and a sweater, with sleeves on the ends so they don't fall off a person's shoulders. Milly Jankowski of Dunkirk was kind enough to model one, and a store-bought Snuggie can't hold a candle to one of these creations.
More impressive still, these women don't just donate their talent. Much of the yarn they use is brought in from their own personal supplies.
Kowal explained their inventory.
"We have a lot that's donated," she said. "But most of it is from our stashes. If you've been knitting a long time, you accumulate things. A closetful or a drawerful or a toteful. Or all of the above."
The ladies also get excess yarn from Dunkirk resident Josie Christopher of the Circle of Love, a group that mainly donates hand-knitted items to breast cancer survivors.
The Grape Belt Seniors' knitting circle always welcomes new members, and they're willing to teach their craft to beginners.
"We're a good group," assured Kelley. "We share patterns and refreshments. If you have a glitch in your knitting, there is someone here to help fix it. And if you crochet or cross-stitch, you're welcome, too."
To join the knitting circle, donate yarn, or to suggest a worthy organization to receive future donations of handmade items, call Louise at 595-3770, Beatrice at 679-1668, or Nancy Kelley at 366-1465.
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