New Trowbridge School Club Fashions Skills and Knits Togetherness

January 2, 2019

By Katherine Keller

Trowbridge School Knitting Club members Haylei Volgman and Audrianna Lloyd. The club meets once a week in the school library. —Katherine Keller

An industrious group of third and fourth graders are members of the Trowbridge School of Great Lakes Studies brand new Knitting Club that launched the first week of November 2018. Currently the club includes ten fourth graders and 8 third graders, girls and boys. The members of each grade meet once per week from 11 to 11:50am.

The club, led by volunteers Ruth Shank and Patrice Safarik, is a Close Knit Community Workshop project, an outreach program of the new Milwaukee nonprofit Bridging Cities, Inc., established by Shank and Milwaukee County District 14 Supervisor Jason Haas in 2018.

A number of Trowbridge students wanted to learn to knit, said Celene Muel­ler, who organized the club. Mueller is now a school support teacher, but she started her career at Trowbridge 27 years ago as a kindergarten teacher.

Volunteers Ruth Shank and Patrice Safarik of Close Knit Community Workshop are teaching Trowbridge Street Knitting Club members how to craft fabric with two needles and yarn. —Jason Haas

To form the club, Mueller needed to find a volunteer who would teach the club members to knit. She contacted Sharon Cook, a Trowbridge School volunteer community advocate. 

The timing was right because Cook had just learned that Haas’s new nonprofit included knitting workshops. (Bridging Cities is a private endeavor of Haas’s that is independent of his county supervisor role.)

Cook contacted Haas, who in turn asked Ruth Shank if she’d be willing to help Trowbridge establish its knitting club. She agreed, and the club began to materialize. Trowbridge purchased the knitting needles and solicited yarn donations via the school’s newsletter. The first meeting was held November 5, 2018.

The Third Grade Trowbridge Knitting Club members with Ruth Shank. —Katherine Keller

Mueller said knitting is helping the club members expand their creativity and also develop responsibility because they are required to practice at home. 

“None of the students in the club knew how to knit but were curious about it because they’d seen their mothers or grandmothers knitting,” Mueller said. “Some of the club members have told me that they are finding that it helps them to be better gamers because knitting helps with focus and strategy. They tell me they really like it and they look forward to the club meetings.”

Brianna Gregorio, focused and determined. —Katherine Keller

Stitching it together

Early in her childhood in Elkhart, Ind., Shank discovered an affinity with fiber arts and tried to knit. Her father bought her a knitting book when he saw her struggle to teach herself. Then her first grade teacher, Mrs. Berkey, who was an accomplished knitter, invited her to her home and taught her to knit.

“I have been knitting for over 50 years. I had to teach myself to knit because initially there was no one I knew that knitted, crocheted, or did many of the other wonderful fiber affiliated arts. I am definitely not from a family of knitters,” Shank said.

She elevated her knitting skills 25 years ago when she was recovering from a traumatic brain injury caused by an aneurism in her right frontal lobe. 

Her post-surgical recovery was a long five-year process. She had to relearn how to write with a pen or pencil. She strove to recover speech. “I thought I was saying full sentences,” she said. But what she heard inside her head was distinctly different from the speech she was producing, which was confined to individual words or phrases.

The Fourth Grade Trowbridge Knitting Club members with Jason Haas and mentors Patrice Safarik and Ruth Shank.—Katherine Keller

One of the most challenging periods was immediately following surgery when her doctor told her she must rest and not move. Not content to “just lie there,” Shank asked for her yarn and knitting needles to help while away the time. She took advantage of that time to elevate her skills and learned how to perform complex stitches to create patterns and to incorporate beads and baubles.

About 10 years ago, Shank began to teach knitting to help engage with people who did not speak English or had other interpersonal communication challenges. She developed the close-knit community concept as she observed how teaching people to knit broke barriers and built bonds between herself and her students and between the students themselves.

“Through the fiber arts,” Shank said, “I was able to meet and develop great relationships with individuals that did not necessarily have that same background, or life experiences I had. 

“You don’t know how much another person can be like you or how they can help you be your best you,” Shank explained. That applies to knitting communities with members of any age.

William Ramos, Christopher Davis, and Richard Fabich — knitting to improve their gaming focus! —Katherine Keller

She has watched members of her workshops step outside themselves and form bonds with others in the group. She sees knitting groups as an antidote to divisiveness. “The (little) gaps between human beings become caverns and the world becomes all the worse for it…I know that divisiveness is not what God wants for the human race,” she said.

Shank met Jason Haas in 2014 when she made a lead poisoning prevention presentation to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Health and Human Needs committee. At the time, Shank was working in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Children’s Environmental Health Sciences Core Center. 

Madison Garcia, Sophia Wood, and Adrianna Garcia — proud accomplishment. —Katherine Keller

A friendship developed, and she and Haas began discussing how they might work together to pursue their mutual goal of finding ways to connect people and neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Last summer they established Bridging Cities and incorporated Shank’s Close Knit Community Workshops.

Shank recruited fellow volunteer Patrice Safarik. The two met at Vennture Brew Company in Washington Heights, one of the venues where Shank holds her Close Knit Community workshops.

“If you have people like Patrice, who share the vision, that’s who you need as volunteers,” Shank said. 

Eliason Wood (I’ve got this!) and Danielle Wood, two of the triplet sisters in Knitting Club. —Katherine Keller

Both women have been impressed with the students’ interest in and dedication to learning to knit.

Safarik took up knitting in her early 30s when she was a stay-at-home mom living in Neenah. She discovered she loved it. “It’s something you can pick-up and put down,” she said, which fit nicely the exigencies of caring an infant.

Knitting classes also offered her time with other adults. She liked the social aspect of it and that she was learning something new that was all hers. She felt empowered by her newfound ability to create her own garments.

She said the Trowbridge knitting club students are learning to adjust their expectations and that they each learn at their own pace.

She and Shank give the students one-on-one time and attention, and as the students learn, they begin to help one another. They talk to one another and they talk with Ruth and Patrice. Some of the students, even though they are in the same grade and classroom, had not interacted prior to joining the club.

They’ve bridged those gaps and are getting to know one another and help one another, Safarik said.

There are some challenges teaching children, Shank said, but good ones.

“Their high level of energy has to be dealt with in a creative and in a positive way to achieve the success,” she said. “When you get creative, it is amazing what they can accomplish.”

Shank revels in the feeling of closeness that has developed between the club members. She said she has observed how the students are starting to connect, trust one other, and grow closer. “They’re developing new friendships,” she said.

Shank noted that the students are learning life lessons as they learn to knit and interact with each other in knitting club.

Knitting Club mentor Ruth Shank brought an example of her knitting project to show her students, a stocking with a complex and colorful pattern. —Katherine Keller

“Knitting is sometimes frustrating and challenging,” Safarik said. “But they’re learning not to get mad at themselves. They learn that you build skills step by step.” She reminds them that there was a time when they couldn’t read or tie their shoes. “I tell them tying their shoes is harder than learning to knit.”

“Knitting gives them a feeling of empowerment,” Shank said. “Kids need to feel empowered to move forward. When we develop these groups (for children or adults), we find that the participants want to be in the room with friends.”

“They benefit from being part of something,” Safarik said.

One of the big lessons beginning knitters learn, no matter their age, is that they will make mistakes. Sometimes that means learning how to pick up a dropped stitch. Sometimes it means acknowledging the mistake cannot be remedied without starting all over. That means pulling the yarn, stitch by stitch, to “unknit it.”

Because they knit together in a group, they find out they’re not alone in this, Safarik said. 

“Everyone makes mistakes. Kids are still learning about making mistakes,”  Safarik said. “When they make a mistake, they must appraise it and decide, is this something I can live with, fix, or do I need to start over?”

“That’s how you become an expert. You sometimes have to start it over to make it better,” Shank said.

“All of them watch out for each other,” Safarik said. “Seeing that a friend or peer can knit helps them realize they too can do it.”

How You Can Contribute

Ruth Shank would like donations of quality materials to give to students who need them in her Close Knit Community Workshops. She prefers bamboo needles. “Yarn winders and yarn swifts would also be helpful,” she said. Eventually I could see participants wishing to learn to spin, weave, and use knitting machines etc. Contact her:

Celene Mueller hopes to start more student clubs at Trowbridge and invites community members to volunteer and share their time, talent, and skills. Some students would like a chess club. She’s interested in many activities including whittling, sewing, card games, including Solitaire, and other handcrafts, etc. Contact her:

Casting on

Shank doesn’t want to exclude any children but she’s working with limited resources.

Mueller hopes to expand the club to include eighth graders. Because Shank and Safarik teach at other venues, they must limit their visits to Trowbridge to two per week. Mueller hopes to combine the third and fourth graders into a single club meeting, which would open a slot for the eighth grade students who want to participate.

During the Compass visit to the club, the fifth grade teacher stopped in to see if there was a way, for some of his fifth graders who want to learn to knit, to join the club.

To learn more about the work of Bridging Cities:  To join a knitting workshop: (They’re free!)

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