Saturday, July 14, 2007

Purls of Compassion

Purls of Compassion
by Chris Worthy

From The Tribune-Times, Oct. 26, 2005

Born of necessity, Iris Whatley’s knitting skills once warmed the feet of British soldiers in World War II. At 87, she still knits feverishly—but the work of her hands now clothes desperately poor children half a world away.
The pictures from the former Soviet Union tell the story: mothers beam as they hold Whatley’s brightly colored creations—a true rainbow in an otherwise dismal landscape.
Whatley, a widow who has three sons, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, now lives in the Five Forks area with her youngest son and his family, but her journey began in England at a time when survival depended upon frugality and self-reliance.
“I’ve knitted since I was five,” Whatley said. “We went to school and you learned to knit and sew. When you’d done that, you then went on to other things. You started off knitting a dishcloth. The next thing you knitted was a (sweater) front. The little girl next to you knit the other half. Then you knit a glove and she would knit the other one, then a sock. By the time you left school, you could totally clothe yourself.”
And she learned to do so frugally. Even now, Whatley puts each scrap of yarn to use and she often receives unfinished knitting projects from others that she unravels and stores for another day.
“You don’t waste anything,” she said. “I roll up every bit of string.”
“I lived totally through World War II,” Whatley said. “A week’s rations filled a shoebox. That’s all you had—two ounces of bacon, two ounces of butter, two ounces of lard. I never saw anybody starve. I never saw anybody obese either. Everything of importance was taken. You learned to share.”
Having lived through the leanest of times, Whatley’s heart breaks for those in need. And she has little tolerance for wastefulness or over consumption.
“I went on my first cruise and I cried when I saw the food that was shot overboard that we never ate,” she said. “The ports are the poorest part of town. There were little children with a hibiscus, bringing it to you. They let them out of school to beg. And there was this liner full of people. And then you’re overfed, you’re overstuffed, you’re over-entertained, you’re over-everything else.”
Whatley found a way to help through Simpsonville resident Camilla Madding. Madding met Whatley at church and told her about a project organized by Guideposts magazine that provides sweaters to needy children.
“I thought maybe she would be interested,” Madding said. “I asked if she knew how to knit. Little did I know. I gave her the pattern and maybe a month later she was back at church and said, ‘I’ve knitted you some sweaters.’ She had a box and there were maybe 25 of them.”
Soon thereafter, Madding—who said she knits one sweater for each 50 Whatley completes—learned of another ministry that could use the talents of “the sweater wizard,” as Madding calls Whatley.
Waterloo resident Theresa Garrett, known to many as Pinky the Clown, is part of Ware Shoals-based The Master’s Mission, a Christian missionary group. Garrett travels with the group to Ukraine once or twice each year to teach clowning and reach out to families who live in poverty, many of whom have been left hopeless and ill by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that occurred in 1986.
“We may perform for as many as 350 children who are there being decontaminated,” Garrett said. “Ninety-five percent of the people are sick.”
Garrett ships warm sweaters, baby blankets and other items in advance of her trip. Many end up in “mommy bags” filled with supplies needed for newborns.
“In Papilnia, it’s the poorest region,” Garrett said. “That’s where the mommy bags go. The mommy bags are keeping children from being aborted. They don’t prepare for babies because the death rate exceeds the survival rate three to one. If they can abort the baby, they think it’s better for them because there is no way they can take care of them. It’s so freezing cold over there and they don’t have anything warm.”
Garrett’s stories fuel Whatley’s prolific knitting.
“When we met Pinky and realized this was quite personal—she could tell us about the trip, she took pictures of the people there and told us the story—and you heard the story, it was heartbreaking,” Whatley said. “That really makes you know that what you’re doing is well worthwhile, if only more people would do it. I said (to Garrett), ‘Are you making any headway?’ She said, ‘Oh, I wish you hadn’t asked that question, but if we save one child, we’ve done something.’”
And so Whatley knits and she recruits others to do the same. She knows each stitch may mean the difference between bone-chilling cold and warmth that enables a child to go to school, between a baby placed on the street to be collected by an orphanage worker and a child who is swaddled in his mother’s home.
“It’s what you get inside of you,” Whatley said. “It’s the feeling of knowing what you’ve done. Look what a life we’ve had and here at 80-something I can still give back. When you get older, people don’t really notice you’re there, so you just sit on the corner. Well, I sit there with my knitting.”

There are opportunities to fill “mommy bags” and gift boxes for orphaned children in Ukraine. For more information, call The Master’s Mission (864) 456-3055.

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