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Crafting Brings New Skills, Fresh Outlook to YSS Residents

Photos by Nora Edinger Kae (not her real name) can crochet at lightning speed. The teen learned the craft as part of a maker program for residents at Helinski Shelter on Wheeling Island.

WHEELING — Like many teen girls, Kae has a room decorated with string lights, high color and a big dose of wistfulness. Like many crafty types, she’s also got a serious stash of yarn.

Colorful skeins and balls peek out of containers in her closet, on a shelving unit and on the floor next to her bed, where an afghan is in progress. A crochet hook is poised for whenever there’s some free time — even if that’s not until evening.

“It’s very comforting to me,” says Kae (not her real name) of the rhythmic motion and satisfying cascade of stitches that crochet offers. “It helps me fall asleep.”

She whips the afghan onto her lap and gives a demonstration of her skill, her blue-polished fingertips flying. The project of the day is worsted weight, but oversized velvet yarn is her favorite. “I like to use it on blankets because they’re big and fluffy and soft.

“I just like seeing the finished project. And, I can make stuff for people and they’ll be happy.”

And that — all of that — is exactly what the crafting program at the non-profit Youth Services System, Inc. is intended to inspire, according to two administrators there.

GLITTERPALOOZA

“I’ve got kids that can sit and crochet and you don’t have to turn the lights on (for them to see their work),” said Margo Scott, who works with girls age 8 to 17 at YSS’s Helinski Shelter on Wheeling Island. “It’s a way of them keeping control and de-stressing. That means so much.”

Margo Scott’s young charges — and other youth aged 10 to 21 who are serving court sentences at a companion YSS property in Wheeling’s downtown — are in residence for a variety of reasons. None of them are happy ones, they noted. But, Scott and fellow administrator Linda Scott (not related) make sure both programs’ crafting time is all happy all the time.

Both women said crafting is, in fact, so popular with residents it can be used as a behavioral incentive. Residents know that crafting supplies that could be used as weapons are tightly monitored and missing ones lead to a lockdown. And, at least on the detention side of the operation, court officers can suspend crafting time if a youth gets into a fight or otherwise breaks center rules.

That possibility matters, they said. Glitter, it seems, goes a long way.

The women — who are themselves so crafty they’ve each owned a ceramic shop, and one is so skilled at sewing she can alter wedding gowns — grimaced at the mention of the sparkly stuff. Glitter and sand art are a housekeeping nightmare. But, they do both anyway.

They also do machine sewing — think some 450 masks launched into the community during COVID — doll clothing and the occasional skirt or hair tie for the residents themselves. There’s also hand sewing, painting, papier mache, origami, Christmas ornaments, blankets for babies born at Wheeling Hospital, card making, illustrations, jewelry and on and on.

“Anything you can think of, we will try to teach the children and, sometimes, learn something ourselves,” Margo Scott said.

Linda Scott said the latter happened when some of the girls got hold of red furry fabric recently and went crazy for all things Christmas. She noted the girls also teach each other as they learn new skills.

“We’ve even had girls that teach the boys how to crochet,” Linda Scott said, laughing about the most likely reason. “They just want to sit by each other.”

Motivation aside, such skills have legs.

“When we teach them how to crochet, they can take that skill with them when they leave,” Margo Scott said. That matters, because residents like Kae — and even those in detention — will leave. “This is a part of their lives. They will move on from here, but they never forget it.”

Linda Scott, who administers the detention side of YSS programming, has already seen the spillover. One former resident regularly displays her yarn work on social media. Another designs and sells baby clothing online.

You just never know what might happen when you put a crochet needle or a sewing machine in a youth’s hands, they said.

Kae, the teen with the yarn stash is listening. And dreaming. She likes to imagine a life in which she could be a doctor by day and an artist by night.

HEART STRONG

That kind of hopefulness resonates with Margo Scott, who said one element of the crafting program is opportunity to engage with the community.

“We teach kids to give back,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who do donate and help out with these kids.”

In addition to the COVID masks and baby blankets for the hospital, she said the youth have produced blankets and pillows for fund-raisers in Charleston and Christmas stockings filled with small toiletries for residents of Peterson Healthcare and Rehabilitation Hospital.

Linda Scott added that crafting makes for a stronger spirit in another way. “If they complete a project and everyone’s oohing and ahhing over it, that builds them up.

She remembered one past resident who came in with her hair hanging over her face like a shield. That girl transformed into a creative person who could boldly grow tomatoes in the cafeteria where she was once so uncomfortable she could barely eat.

“The tomatoes died right after she left,” Linda Scott noted. “I think they knew that she loved them.”

And, that might be the core of bringing the maker movement into a place where youth are facing difficulties of every sort, she said.

“People are always asking me, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ I say, ‘I’m not done yet,'” Linda Scott said. “I’m here for the kids of West Virginia. I’m here to provide them with what they’re missing. And, a lot of the time, it’s just love.”

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