For the past 20 years, a group of women have been working on the Chain Gang at Merit Health Wesley. In this case, the chain this gang is using is the chain stitch to make baby blankets, newborn caps, prayer shawls, pillows and walker caddies for patients and workers alike.
Meeting on the last Friday morning of each month, the volunteer group of about 10-12 women work on the scheduled pattern of the season, providing warm comfort to patients of all ages. Virginia Killingbeck serves as the group’s coordinator, setting schedules and getting materials.
“I really don’t know how I got where I am,” she said. “I totally enjoy organizing the group and keeping the ladies involved. It is important to me that this group is a service group, that we give back to the hospital. That’s my main focus is to make sure our projects work out well.”
Killingbeck remembers when she decided to join the Chain Gang.
“I was standing in line to check out, and Nettie Jones, one of our members, was in front of me,” she said. “She saw that I was purchasing some yarn, and she asked, ‘Do you knit or crochet?’ I said that I knit. She said, ‘We have a group at Wesley called the ‘Chain Gang,’ and I’d love to have you come.’ At the next meeting, I decided to join in. It’s just a matter of sharing.
The Chain Gang now falls under the direction of Marketing Manager Amber Ross Hartfield. So, Killingbeck provides an outline to give Hartfield an idea of the projects.
“We are making the pillows now,” Killingbeck said, “and we won’t do those again until next year at this time. Our next project is to work on baby blankets because we give baby blankets to the birthing center to as many of the new moms as we can. Then we start in August, and through November we make Christmas hats. So, every baby that is born between Dec. 1 and the end of the year when they go home gets a Christmas hat.”
Planning ahead is important for Killingbeck because a baby blanket takes about 24 hours to make, while a baby hat takes about six hours.
Killingbeck said she also makes sure that the ladies are invited to any event that takes place at the hospital.
“They are volunteers,” she said. “They are absolutely a part of the hospital, and I want to make sure they know that. I keep them abreast of everything, and I think that is so important. … They all have nametags and shirts like other people in the hospital. We wanted to make sure that they are a part.”
Hartfield said the Chain Gang members are important to Merit Health Wesley. “They have a certain duty at the hospital that makes them valuable.”
“It’s a very nice group of women,” said Cookie Weidman, who has volunteered at the hospital for 18 years, not all with the Chain Gang. “I do the walker caddies. Usually, the patients are the ones who have had knee replacements and use the temporary walkers. The walker they get are the ones that don’t have the seats or the bags. These bags are ones that you just tie on the walker so they can take water or something with them. It makes it really convenient for them.”
Killingbeck said the Chain Gang provides an outlet for those women who are tired of being alone.
“It fills a void,” she said. “There are several women that have lost their husbands recently over the last year and it fills that void. It keeps them out in the public and involved in giving back.”
The Chain Gang also provides “tray favors” for every patient, Killingbeck said. “They are, cards, ‘a little happy’ to say, ‘Happy Easter,’ ‘Merry Christmas’ or whatever is appropriate.”
Hartfield said Chain Gang members will reach out to anyone who is feeling down.
“Something else that they do – and y’all may not even know it – because they just do it,” she said. “Anytime they know of someone or a family friend or someone just walking down the hallway, I’ve seen Miss Virginia hand them a blanket off her cart. She will be walking through the hallway and she’ll say, ‘Here you go.’ I’ve even seen one person do that for an employee. It’s not even just a patient. They’ll say, ‘It looks like you need a blanket today.’ I want to brag on them about that because they really want to help.”
“It’s our passion,” Killingbeck said, “not only to help, but also to show people that we are proud of what we do.”
In one case, Killingbeck noticed that one door in the birthing center announced that a girl – Violet – had been born.
“I had a purple and white blanket, so I took that in there,” she said. “The grandmother sent a thank-you note and said it was just perfect with a picture of the baby wrapped in that blanket. It’s little things like that mean so much.”
Hartfield said the volunteers don’t just knit once a month. “Several of these ladies work in other areas of the hospital throughout the week as well. They don’t just give through the Chain Gang, but in other areas too.”
The hospital does have a budget to support the Chain Gang, Killingbeck said. Materials also come from other sources.
“I went through my yarn closet earlier this week, and in the yarn that came in today I brought a big bag of it,” she said. “One store had a big sale going, so I picked up a lot of yarn that way. A lot of time I always like to have yarn on hand; they may not be big skeins because they are leftovers. Especially the crocheters, they can mix yarns together. A lot of the knitters don’t mix yarns because they don’t know how.”
Killingbeck said the sales are the best time of the year.
“I purchase a lot of materials for the pillows and the stuffing, and they reimburse me,” she said. “Typically, the ladies that make their own blankets will buy their own yarn and pick up a few scraps here. Most of it is donated.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Merit Health Wesley’s Chain Gang can contact Hartfield at (601) 268-5142.