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If you google the “Starfish Story”, multiple curated images will appear with the beloved story of the old man who came upon a boy throwing starfish back into the ocean. Confused, the old man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy explained the surf was up and the tide was going out. If he didn’t help the starfish, they would die. The old man said, “But son, there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.” After listening politely, the boy smiled, bent down and picked up another starfish throwing it into the water and said, “I made a difference to that one.” 

As a compassionate knitter, otherwise known as a charity knitter, I have often wondered if the hours of time and money I put into creating hats, mittens, blankets, and booties ever make a difference.

Just last week I was listening to a podcast on “Effective Altruism”. According to the Effective Altruism model, it would appear my time and money could be better spent. In fact, according to that model I should do research on what saves the most lives and currently, that is donating money for mosquito netting to prevent malaria. The model encourages us to donate money to organizations who make it their business to identify the most effective NGO’s and then to just write out a check knowing we have done our part; similar to making contributions to a church’s humanitarian aid fund. 

As a side note in the same podcast, they talked about the guilty pleasure of donating to organizations that are meaningful to us rather than the identified most effective, as if it could be likened to spending money on getting your nails done instead of buying groceries.

A couple of weeks ago I had one of those “I’ll never forget it experiences,” that cracked my heart open. As some of you know in late September I was diagnosed with a low-grade breast cancer that required surgery and subsequent radiation therapy…

One day as I was waiting for my radiation treatment, I saw 2 large white garbage bags filled with knit hats and a basket sitting on the counter overflowing with loomed knitted hats. In my mind I wondered, do people really use those hats. I remember one summer my knitting group made several baby hats and I actually had a hard time finding a hospital that would take them. When I finally found one willing to accept them, I was taken to a room filled with handmade donations. I was then asked to sign a paper saying it was okay if they donated the handknit items to other organizations if they couldn’t use them. I have also heard stories of people finding their donated handiwork at local thrift shops such as Deseret Industries or the Salvation Army. 

So, on a whim as I was walking out I asked the receptionist if they are able to use all of the hats that get donated to them. Frankly, I also wondered about the scratchy yarn that made up most of the hats. How comfortable could that be on a bald head? 

“Just out of curiosity,” I said, “Do people really take those hats? I saw those white bags full and wonder what you do with them all.” I explained that I’m part of a charity knitting group and we wonder if we are doing any good or if we are just filling hospital storage space.

Her reply stunned me.

“Oh yes” she said. “I was worried we wouldn’t get any hats this year due to Covid.” She went on to say, “You have to understand, every 15 minutes we are treating multiple people with radiation and that doesn’t even count everyone who is receiving Chemotherapy.”

And then this…

“You also need to understand we treat people across all incomes; from homeless people to billionaires.”

“Let me tell you a story,” she said.

“Last Christmas we were treating a woman who was homeless. One day after her daily treatment, she was getting ready to leave and she saw the basket of knitted hats. She asked if she could take one.  We said of course, and then she said, “Would you mind if I took a bunch of them? You see all of my friends are homeless too. I would love to give them all a hat for Christmas.”

The receptionist who was telling me the story didn’t have to say another word. We looked at each other in silence, both of us with tears in our eyes. 

We have no idea when we act on an impression of kindness where it will land. My compassionate knitting group meets once a month. We think we are knitting hats for cancer patients, or for elders in indigeneous communities, but once we make our offering it is a mystery as to who will receive it. Someone once shared with me a situation in which a hand-quilted baby blanket was donated to our local children’s hospital. Instead of it being placed in the closet with the other donated blankets, a staff member took it for herself. When I first heard that story, I was disappointed. But now I ask myself, “What is the rest of the story?” 

This year I hope to remember that giving is an act of unconditional love. It is a reminder that we are all connected, whether we know each other or not. I hope to let go of needing to know the end of the story because sometimes the end of the story is much grander than I could’ve ever imagined.

Happy New Year Everyone!

May you be filled with loving kindness. May you be safe from inner and outer harm. May you be happy. May you know you make a difference in this world with every act of kindness you offer.