Armed with knitting needles and crochet hooks, the members of Purls & Prayers meet weekly on the upper floor of the Giant Eagle Market District store in the Kingsdale Center.
Their task is to “knit with a purpose,” according to their founder and de facto leader, Helen Southall.
“In a bad time, we give just a bit of support,” Southall said. “It’s a sense of purpose and a sense of helping for us, and it’s one of the best things we’ve done.”
The support she speaks of comes in the form of prayer shawls that are knitted and crocheted by her growing group of volunteers. For more than a year, the women have sought to provide physical warmth and emotional comfort to people throughout central Ohio and beyond through their volunteer needlework.
Each Tuesday afternoon, a core group of close to a dozen women gathers at the Giant Eagle Market District store in Upper Arlington.
The group was established roughly 18 months ago by Southall, a 42-year resident of Upper Arlington who now lives in the Scioto Station condominium community in northwest Columbus.
At the time, she and about three other women from the Grandview Heights, Marble Cliff and Upper Arlington areas were knitting blankets for U.S. servicemen and women serving in Afghanistan or recovering from injuries in military hospitals.
“We said, ‘It’d be really nice to do something locally,’ ” Southall said. “We’re now making prayer shawls for anyone we hear about who needs a lift.”
Purls & Prayers has grown to include close to 20 women, many of whom have lived most of their adult lives in the Tri-Village area.
Some joined after hearing about the group’s work through friends or their churches, but many were persuaded by Southall, whose recruiting skills, they said, rival that of any big-time college athletics coach.
“We were golfing and Helen said, ‘Do you know how to knit or crochet?’ ” said Pat Janusz of Grandview.
Via an open referral system, Purls & Prayers provides handmade shawls to people in need of support, many of whom are fighting sickness or diseases such as cancer.
Purls & Prayers members refuse payment for their shawls. They will, however, accept donations of yarn and other materials or help from volunteers to knit or crochet.
As word of their work and the shawls has spread, the group has picked up volunteers from the Linden and Northland neighborhoods of Columbus, and other nearby communities.
“I have a friend that told me about it,” said Danuta Charlassier, a native of Poland who lives in Linden. “I came here two or three months ago and I got hooked on it.”
There’s also Cate Harrington, an 86-year-old Akron woman, who knits from home and regularly mails six-inch by nine-inch rectangles to her daughter, Karen Harrington, formerly of Grandview and now of Scioto Station, to assist the charitable efforts.
“She can’t do sweaters any more because she can’t follow the patterns,” Karen Harrington said. “This is perfect for her.
“This week, she sent 32 rectangles. Every night we talk, and she tells me how many she’s knitting.”
In addition to the afghans the group continues to produce for U.S. troops, it had completed 88 prayer shawls as of July 9.
Each is custom-made for its recipient, with messages like “Hope” and “Love” stitched on some of the 24 rectangles that make up a shawl; some include the person’s name or initials.
Most group members knit their rectangles while at home.
“I feel like I’m at least doing something even when I’m at home, rather than just sitting there watching TV,” Janusz said.
Ellie Thiel, a former Marble Cliff resident who now resides in the Grandview area, said knitting from home quells her hyperactivity.
“I play with my kitty cat and will do two (rectangles),” she said.
On Tuesdays, Purls & Prayers members go to Giant Eagle for lunch on the way in and, sometimes, dinner on the way out.
“Cook is a four-letter word,” Southall explained.
They also socialize and knit.
Most then hand off their rectangles to Jeanne Masoni of Upper Arlington and Brenda Martin of Grandview, who are lauded for their skills in crocheting the rectangles into the larger shawls.
Like many of her fellow Purls & Prayers members, Martin learned needlework from an elder – in her case, her grandmother.
“I learned to do it before I learned to write,” she said.
Martin also believes she’s doing God’s work.
“I remember asking God, ‘Is this what I’m supposed to do?’ and He showed me,” she said. “I started finding boxes of yarn in my yard.”
For others, the responses from those who receive the shawls have convinced them Purls & Prayers is serving a greater purpose.
“I have a friend in New Orleans who is sick with cancer,” said Bonny Salrin, a former Marble Cliff resident now living in Thurber Village in Columbus. “She is so sick and when we gave her a shawl, it really boosted her spirits.
“We see their responses and we can tell they know we care. We cry a little sometimes.”
Additional information about Purls & Prayers, including how to refer someone for a shawl or to donate materials to the group, is available by calling Southall at 614-488-5372 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.