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For more than 20 years, Nelson Mendonca struggled with an addiction to drugs that saw him in and out of prison.
There was a time when he feared the cycle would never end.
But one day while he was incarcerated in British Columbia, Canada, during the coronavirus pandemic, Mendonca picked up a loom hook – a knitting tool – that ended up changing his life.
He joined a program where he learned how to knit. And he spent months making toques – or hats – for the homeless.
After his release from prison in July, Mendonca joined the Phoenix Society, an integrated addiction services center. Now he leads a group of about 10 men who have so far knitted over 200 toques they donate to people in need.
“It’s the one thing in my life I can’t cheat, manipulate, cut corners, or find a loophole, because I’ve tried to make it faster and easier,” Mendonca, 41, told CNN. “But you just have to follow every step, one at a time over and over again.”
“But if you follow that routine, you are gratified with a toque at the end,” he said. “It sounds like a small thing, but to start a toque and finish it and then give it to someone, it’s sparked joy in me that I have never felt before in my life.”
Finding their own community
As Mendonca spent his days knitting yarn and making his own unique creations, fellow residents at the facility began to take notice.
One by one, Mendonca’s solo hobby turned into a little community.
Among his group is 31-year-old Michael Prokopchuk, who spent years struggling with his own drug addiction, which led him to a suicide attempt before he joined Phoenix.
“After almost four years of addiction, it was time to turn my life around,” Prokopchuk told CNN. “Our knitting group has helped me by keeping my mind busy and giving me a sense of community. I’ve connected with everybody in our looming group and have learned some quality life lessons from sharing with the group during my time here.”
As members of the facility complete the 90-day intensive residential treatment program, they are given the option to remain at the facility for two years as they continue their recovery.
Mendonca, who finished the program and chose to stay, is used to his group of toquers constantly changing. But with every new member, the group only becomes more tightly knit.
“It’s really nice to have something to do, and the conversations we have are about pom poms, colors, brims, and we catch ourselves sitting there like we can’t believe what we’re talking about,” Mendonca said. “Somehow our group is solely men, and it turned us all into softies.”
Helping people in need
While Mendonca’s group began organically, as a way to help himself and his friends overcome their addictions, their efforts did not stop there.
“It’s been such a challenging year for so many people,” Phoenix Society CEO Keir Macdonald told CNN.
“Those who are in recovery had an even more difficult time because of having to be isolated and physically distanced due to the pandemic,” he said. “But despite it all, this group made positive life choices on their own. Nelson started this for Nelson because it made him feel good, and it naturally became something so much bigger than that.”
The toques have been donated to marginalized groups who don’t have warm clothing during this time of the year – including people in homeless shelters, single moms who needed something to give their children for Christmas. There are even tiny infant toques for babies when the pandemic protocols will allow for it.
As the group continues knitting, the Phoenix Society is raising money to cover all of the club’s financial needs in 2021.