Weaving Through Life’s Traffic

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Housing program for women embraces knitting as therapy

By Anthony Giornalista

A handful of women whose lives had unraveled are stitching things back together thanks to a young Rush medical student and the knitting class she started.

Several of the residents at Facing Forward to End Homelessness, a housing-first program for women on Chicago’s West Side, are feeling happier, smoking fewer cigarettes and feeling healthier in general thanks partly to a knitting and crocheting class they began in the spring.

At Facing Forward, which provides permanent housing, education and social services, these 63 women are trying to break a cycle of poverty. They have survived adversities such as domestic violence, incarceration, drug abuse and sexual abuse.

Many of the women are middle-aged and older, and for the 16 who attend the class twice a month, knitting provides some solace.

“I feel relaxed when I’m doing it,” said Rita Dixon, one of the newer members of the class. “It feels good when you see yourself making something that you’re proud of. Usually, I’d be watching TV. But now I’m concentrating on crocheting. I feel relaxed, so I believe this is helping with my blood pressure, which is important since I have Type 2 diabetes.”

Facing Forward receives assistance from the Rush Community Service Initiatives Program’s (RCSIP) Wellness Center, whose team of interdisciplinary students helps them focus on healthy eating and lifestyle choices. Many of their basic needs are met, and all of the women are linked with a primary care physician and life coaches from the center.

Less smoking, more positive outlook

Eileen Wang, a second-year medical student at Rush Medical College, was a life coach at the RCSIP Wellness Center when she hatched the idea for a knitting class as part of the center’s plan for working with underserved populations.

Wang started the class, which is part of the Building Healthy Urban Communities Project and funded by a grant from BMO Harris Bank, in April as part of her community service project in Rush Medical College’s Family Medicine Leadership program. She thought it would promote social support, smoking cessation and improved mental health.

Now she is studying the results. Her preliminary evidence shows that as residents use their hands for knitting, they are smoking roughly one or two fewer cigarettes a day. Now part of a social network, their outlook has improved and they’re taking pride in what they’re learning and creating.

“They have a lot less anxiety and are able to get through the day easier because of the knitting,” Wang said. “It’s given them an outlet to deal with past problems that they’re now starting to process in a healthier way. They now see that cigarettes aren’t the only way to cope.”

“It gives me something to do with my hands,” Facing Forward resident Sabrina Stokes said. “I was smoking a pack a day, which is 20 cigarettes. Now I’m down to eight cigarettes a day. It’s not quite where I want to be, but it’s a big difference from where I was. When you’re crocheting, you get so caught up in it that you say, ‘Oh, I’ll just get a cigarette later.’ But then so much time has passed that I forgot to smoke that cigarette.”

‘Supporting each other’

Some of the women are becoming coaches in their own right, Wang said.

“I’ve seen the women step up and become leaders in their own community,” she said. “Some of the women are picking up knitting easier than others, so they teach each other when I’m not there, which is really great because it helps them get even better at knitting while socializing more and practicing leadership skills.”

Now Wang and her students are making money for supplies by selling some of the items they’ve created, such as hats and scarves, at the Rush University bookstore to help the program become self-sustaining. For every $10 raised, they can buy three balls of yarn, which gives three women one project each and more time to reap the benefits of what they sow, or rather, what they knit and crotchet.

“This is a group of ladies that normally would not even interact with each other,” said Facing Forward case worker Sarah Venton, who helps teach the class. “We’re supporting each other, it’s fun and it’s relaxed. People who wouldn’t even speak to each other are now socializing and becoming friends.

“The ladies have just surpassed anything I could have ever imagined.”