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Former residents’ efforts changing lives in Uganda

At the downtown Spokane Nordstrom, salesperson Morgan Tansy shows off some of the Krochet Kids headwear in the juniors’  department.  (Colin Mulvany)
At the downtown Spokane Nordstrom, salesperson Morgan Tansy shows off some of the Krochet Kids headwear in the juniors’ department. (Colin Mulvany)

’Tis the season for holiday giving. Gifts can entertain, amuse and delight. But some gifts can change a life. A nonprofit with local roots is hoping savvy shoppers will discover that their handmade hats can do more than keep your head warm.

Krochet Kids International aims to sell 10,000 crocheted caps and accessories in December through its Give the Gift of Love campaign. Each item is handcrafted by women in northern Uganda. Thanks to Krochet Kids, these women support their families while working their way out of poverty and into independence.

The fashionable hats with names like “The Waldo” and “The Barney” and the newly released “Bella” are available online and locally at Nordstrom and at the Service Station in north Spokane.

However, seeing his hats at Nordstrom and helping women in Uganda was far from executive director Kohl Crecelius’s mind in 2003, when he took up crocheting during his junior year at Mt. Spokane High School. “My brother came home from college over winter break, and he’d learned to crochet, of all things!” recalled Crecelius. “I always thought anything my older brother did was cool, so I asked him to teach me.”

An avid skier, Crecelius wanted a fashionable way keep his head warm on the mountain. He showed off his handiwork to his friends Travis Hartanov and Stewart Ramsey, and soon they were making cool caps, too.

When school resumed, the friends had already made more hats than they could wear that season. “We took the surplus to school,” said Crecelius. “Instant success! We’ve always had that entrepreneurial drive.”

Soon custom orders poured in and the trio had their hands full – literally. “It’s like a canvas,” said Crecelius. “You can make anything with a hook and yarn.”

They stitched their way through high school, but after graduation the friends attended different universities and set aside their hooks and yarn. All three traveled abroad during college, and Crecelius called their trips eye-opening. “You can’t see the way the majority of the world lives and come back unchanged.”

Stewart Ramsey volunteered at an orphanage in Uganda and was moved by the stories of hardship he heard. Crecelius said Ramsey returned with a passion to help the Ugandan people. The three friends reunited in Spokane during a break in their junior year of college and decided to combine their love of crocheting with their desire to help those in need. The result? Krochet Kids International.

Their goal was simple – travel to Uganda and teach women to crochet. They planned to provide hooks, yarn, a decent wage and then sell the products in the states. But first they had to finance the trip. “We broke out our crochet hooks and sold hats,” said Crecelius.

They also spread the word and soon formed a tight-knit group of college students who believed in the project. The friends chose to locate the nonprofit in Costa Mesa, Calif., due to the area’s thriving apparel industry. Plus, they loved to surf, so the proximity to great waves and beaches offered an added boon.

Krochet Kids received nonprofit status and in the summer of 2007 a group of 10 traveled to Uganda. They brought duffle bags filled with yarn and supplies and taught 10 women to crotchet.

Since then, their compound in Uganda has grown from one hut to five and includes a play area for children. “It’s a huge benefit to bring all these ladies together,” said Crecelius. “The healing and relationships that have taken place among the ladies is amazing. We want to restore dignity to women and families.”

The women earn the Ugandan equivalent of a teacher’s salary. In addition, they attend financial planning seminars, so they can learn the basics of budgeting.

In 2009, 10 women produced 6,000 units of headwear. Today, Krochet Kids employs 87 women who will produce 30,000 units. Next year they plan to produce 80,000 units. Each hat is signed by its maker.

As part of the Give the Gift of Love campaign, the company is promoting “hat parties.” People can host parties in their home and sell Krochet Kids products. Whoever sells the most hats during December will win a trip to Uganda and have the opportunity to meet the women who make the hats.

Hartanov, Ramsey and Crecelius have all graduated from college and focused their efforts into expanding Krochet Kids. The project in Uganda serves as a business model on which they plan to build. “The beginning of the year will find us in a new country,” hinted Crecelius. “We’ve always been dreamers. But it’s not about what we are doing; it’s about who we are helping.”

The national exposure provided by the partnership with Nordstrom has given the organization a larger platform for a message that’s become the motto of Krochet Kids International: Buy a hat. Change a life.