Rogue Valley YCF Youth Give Back Through Knitting

New Bridge Knits teaches youth how to knit, how to run a business, and how to help the community.

By Marlo Zeller
New Bridge High School teacher

Joe’s Place Ministries in Grants Pass, an organization that helps homeless teens, received a surprise this past fall from the incarcerated youth attending New Bridge High School inside Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility. Daron Williams, the director of Joe’s Place, thought they were just going to receive some loom-knitted hats. To his astonishment, the school principal and business teacher also showed up with a $1,000 check. The money came from the youth and their service learning project.

New Bridge Knits is the name of a program created by students in business classes at New Bridge. The project began when their teacher, Marlo Zeller, had some extra yarn to use up. She remembered a former student from several years earlier who mentioned that he liked to loom knit. Wondering what loom knitting was, she watched a YouTube video and learned it was a form of knitting that uses a small, handheld loom instead of needles. She thought, “My students might enjoy this.” She spent $20 on several looms and tools, and the project kicked off.

Rogue Valley Knitting

Left to right: New Bridge principal Lynn Eccleston, Daron Williams of Joe’s Place Ministries, New Bridge teacher Marlo Zeller, and Fes Lellis, Rogue Valley’s volunteer and activities coordinator. Rogue Valley students donated knit hats and money they raised from hat sales to Joe’s Ministries.

Students at New Bridge learned how to loom knit, and they enjoy using the looms in class once per week. One hat is made by four to seven students. Inside each hat is a tag with each student’s signed first name. At the beginning of the project, they guessed they would have about 15 hats to donate by October, but surprisingly, they made over 100. After one month of loom knitting hats, youth in the facility started asking if they could buy them. Once it was approved for the hats to get mailed home, students purchased them for $15 through a silent auction bidding process.

Where do students get the money to purchase hats? They earn funds through facility jobs. Some youth also have money sent in by family members.

Lynn Eccleston, principal of New Bridge, was supportive of the project and continually emphasized to students the redeeming qualities and importance of giving back to the community. New Bridge staff, Rogue Valley employees, and even substitute teacher Kevin O’Malley — who has connections to the quilting community — donated yarn and purchased hats.

As the program grew, more supplies like a tag punch, yarn winder, yarn, looms, and hooks were furnished by the school and the Rogue Valley Youth Incentive Fund. Fes Lellis, Rogue Valley’s volunteer and activities coordinator, says that many of the youth have been homeless at one time or another during their lives, they and can relate to the challenges of those currently on the streets. This made his yarn shopping for the activity, at our local Walmart, rewarding.

Rogue Valley Knitting

Hats knitted by Rogue Valley youth.

“The New Bridge Knits project is a perfect fit with Oregon Youth Authority’s positive human development philosophy and restorative justice practices,” says Randy Guisinger, program director at Rogue Valley. When a student muddled the loom or made the loops too tight, the hat in process had to be cut out and thrown away. This was devastating to most students, but it also was an opportunity for a lesson about starting over. It wasn’t just about starting over on a loom, but starting over each day or each week to try and better themselves. New Year’s resolutions even came up as a topic.

Zeller, their teacher, incorporated community service learning along with lessons on the impacts of homelessness, finance, creating tables and spreadsheets, and writing as part of the students’ activities when they were loom knitting. Students chose to donate their unpurchased hats and the funds from their own purchases to homeless teens through Joe’s Place. Two youth had received assistance from Joe’s Place before they were incarcerated, and they had great things to say about the assistance they received and the people who volunteered there.

If you are in the Grants Pass area or are visiting Rogue Valley YCF and would like to donate yarn or purchase hats, please email Marlo Zeller at
marlo.zeller@threerivers.k12.or.us.

Student Perspectives on New Bridge Knits

Rogue Valley Knitting

Cameron, a New Bridge Knits participant, says, “When I was on the streets, what I received made me feel like there was maybe some hope. Now that I am in a position to help, I would like to do what I can to help the homeless feel like they are not alone in their battle.”

Jonathan: During my entire life, I have been labeled as a person with no emotions and pure hatred for others. Deep down, I really do care about people and feel for others who are going through hard times. Helping teens who are homeless makes me feel like I finally did something right. I am bringing people up instead of tearing them down.

Matthew: I enjoy working on the loom. Not only because it’s fun, but because I remember when I was homeless. I used to be cold, hungry, scared, and lonely. I wish someone had done this for me. Every time I make a hat now, I feel great because I’m giving, helping, and hopefully showing others that I care about homeless people.

John: By participating in the New Bridge Knits project, I get feelings of hope. Creating hats fills me with a sense of pride because I know how it feels to be homeless and not
have anywhere to go or anyone to turn to when in need. I just hope that one day I will be able to make more of a difference and help people who are going through the same life struggles that I have had to face in my past.

Zach: I was once homeless in Grants Pass. At 13, I used to sleep under a tree at a church. I have been to the park when Joe’s Place came to give people food. I understand the struggles of the homeless and I want to help. I hope that the hats that I helped loom knit benefit teens during the cold months and let others know that someone cares.

Cody: When I participate in our project, it gives me a feeling of hope that I have not had in a long time. When we make hats for homeless teens, it makes me feel like I am helping the community.

Jake: I think it is amazing how incarcerated youth have really big hearts and a desire to help the community and homeless teens. I love to help people anytime I can, so I got involved in our project to give back to the community for the things I took from them. I understand I hurt a lot of people, but I am not that person anymore and I want to make a difference in society no matter what the circumstances are.

Rogue Valley Knitting

Damian, a knitting participant, says, “I struggled in the beginning of my incarceration at Rogue Valley. Being a part of New Bridge Knits and other beneficial programs at Rogue Valley has allowed me to find a sense of comfort and to turn my life around by working to become a positive member of society.”

Austen: I believe that the project we are doing in class at Rogue Valley can help change the lives of homeless youth in Grants Pass. The hats can help keep the youth warm
during the winter and they won’t have to spend whatever money they do have on beanies. I am especially proud that we sold some of them and saved the money to give to Joe’s Place. The money will allow them to do more for the youth such as purchase clothes, gifts, temporary living, or even going to the movies or bowling. I really hope that it can make a difference in these young teens’ lives. I am thankful that I was able to
be part of a difference.

Christian: Our New Bridge Knits project is cool. I can give back to others now that I am not homeless anymore. I know the little bit of help I received while homeless made a difference.

Jered: This is a way for me to give back to others who are in the same shoes that I was once in. I want to help homeless teens by doing little things for them like making hats. Then when they are doing better, they might want to help other homeless teens out of the rut they are in, too.

Anthony: I find this a fun and creative way to help out teens who are homeless and need basic items that many people take for granted. I feel this will let them know people are trying to help them and are taking time and effort to show they care about what they are going through. Even something as small as a hat will make a difference in a homeless teen’s life and their struggle. To most people, a hat is not much, but to these teens on the
streets it makes a big difference.

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