Chaplain Twyla Nelson started a prayer shawl ministry for FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care after receiving an unexpected donation of shawls from an area church. Inmates at the Southern Correctional Institution in Troy now also make shawls for the Hospice outreach program.
PINEHURST – The donation of seven large bins of yarn to FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care last spring left Hospice Chaplain Twyla Nelson with a dilemma.
What was she to do with this treasure trove that had belonged to a former patient?
A few weeks later, Nelson turned the yarn over to the medium-security unit for women at the Southern Correctional Institution (SCI) in Troy and pretty much put the episode out of her mind. Then, in January of this year, the first of 35 prayer shawls knitted or crocheted by SCI inmates for Hospice patients arrived just as unexpectedly as the original yarn donation.
“They made these shawls as a way to give back to the community,” Nelson says.
The prayer shawl ministry at FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care began in 2010 with the donation (also unexpected) of several shawls made by members of a local church group. Although Nelson was familiar with a number of outreach ministries, she had never heard of one involving prayer shawls. The church group’s donation opened her eyes to the many possibilities of such a project.
“It’s for the patient’s comfort, but it’s also for the family’s comfort, as well,” she says.
Since incorporating prayer shawls into FirstHealth Hospice’s Spiritual Care Program, Nelson has accepted hundreds, maybe close to a thousand prayer shawls from area churches and ladies’ knitting/crochet groups. They have gone to patients in the Hospice House on the FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care campus near Pinehurst as well as to those still at home or in nursing facilities.
“I try to offer a prayer shawl to every patient who requests a chaplain service,” says Nelson, who became the full-time chaplain for FirstHealth Hospice in 2009.
Every shawl is different. Some are rectangular, and some are square. They come in every possible color or combination of colors.
Each goes to a Hospice patient with the same message attached to it: “This shawl was crafted by loving friends of FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care … with prayerful thoughts that it might bring you warmth, comfort and peace.”
Tina Gibbs, director of FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care, calls the prayer shawl ministry “a valuable service.”
“The prayer shawls crafted and donated by the prayer shawl ministry and by the SCI ladies are beautiful as well as meaningful to our patients and families who receive them,” she says. “I have heard so many comments about how grateful people are to receive them.”
Nelson’s contact for the SCI project is the facility’s clinical chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Priscilla B. Durkin. According to Durkin, SCI’s Community Resource Council had already expressed an interest in a prayer shawl ministry similar to the one in a local church when a staff member got a shawl from a FirstHealth Hospice chaplain.
“In conversation with Chaplain Nelson, our staff member was informed that the Hospice stock of shawls was very low and that FirstHealth had received a donation of yarn that could be used to make prayer shawls,” Durkin says. “The idea of the Community Resource Council (for a shawl project) and the needs and provisions of FirstHealth were combined and referred to me in the Clinical Department.”
Once the project was approved in October 2014, a poster went up with information about it and the availability of yarn and patterns. Interested inmates quickly began to respond.
“The project took off immediately,” says Durkin.
The SCI group making the shawls has no official name, but each participant volunteers her time and gets nothing in return. Most of the women already know how to knit or crochet, but a few want to learn. Veterans teach novices, who practice with yarn scraps.
“We have one lady who is generally in charge of the project,” Durkin says. “She creates bags that contain a pattern and the appropriate amount of yarn to create the item. We give the bags out and ask the recipient to sign an agreement, which is returned when the item is completed.”
In addition to the prayer shawls that go to Hospice patients or to patients undergoing medical treatment, the SCI crafters make blankets, scarves and hats for homeless shelters. To date, 182 women have made 216 hats, 181 scarves, 54 blankets and 153 prayer shawls.
Various individuals, organizations and businesses, including Bella Filati Luxury Yarns in Southern Pines, donate the yarn that keeps the project going. When finished, a shawl goes to one of SCI’s weekly intercessory prayer group meetings, where members pray over it.
“The women who participate report that being allowed to do this gives them a real sense of purpose,” Durkin says. “They are thrilled when our department receives notes from agencies to whom we have donated, acknowledging what a positive difference they have made in the lives of the recipients.”
The shawls do make a difference, says Nelson, who throughout the half-dozen years of the Hospice ministry has observed many uses for them – warming a bedridden patient, draping the shoulders or lap of a patient seated in a chair or wheelchair, or lying folded in a deceased loved one’s favorite spot.
Because she never knows when she will encounter an appreciative patient or family, Nelson always keeps a few shawls in her car. Most are handed out randomly, but Nelson recalls one “with a lot of red in it” that fit perfectly into the décor of the receiving patient’s home.
Another, as she recalls, was draped over the shoulders of a wheelchair-bound patient every time she visited him. That’s how he passed away, she later learned, sitting in his wheelchair with his prayer shawl draped over his shoulders.