Club Knits Community Scholars Together

Living-learning community knits scarves for the homeless

Couzens Hall on Ann Street near the University of Michigan Hospital has previously made its way into the pages of The Ann Arbor Chronicle – as part of UM regents meeting reports. At their Dec. 17, 2009 meeting, regents authorized $49 million in construction contracts at Couzens – which chief financial officer Tim Slottow called the last of the university’s “deep” renovations of its heritage residence halls.

Knitting in Couzens Hall

As Keegan Cisowski knits, he pulls yarn from a metal trash can he's adapted to hold his skeins. (Photos by the writer.)

Last Thursday, The Chronicle spent part of the evening in the living room of Couzens Hall – with a couple dozen members of a knitting club: Scarves with a Purpose (SWAP). The purpose is to provide homeless people with scarves.

It’s an idea that club president, UM freshman Melanie Hebeisen, brought with her from her hometown in Northbrook, Illinois, near Chicago. Hebeisen and her mom started the concept in Northbrook, and that effort has spawned four other chapters, counting the UM club.

Why scarves? It’s a choice driven in part by the fact that new recruits to SWAP typically don’t know how to knit. They’re mostly like Kinnard Hokenhull, who saw one of the SWAP knitters in his dorm making a scarf, and figured he’d like to learn how. 

Kinnard Hockenhull, UM freshman, knits a scarf.

Kinnard Hockenhull, UM freshman, knits a scarf.

Once the initial set of stitches is cast onto a needle, most people can be taught the basics of knitting the same kind of row over and over again until enough length has accumulated to call it a scarf.

Achievement of a completed scarf is tracked by SWAP on a chart posted on the dorm’s wall – actual gold stars next to names. If there’s  any temptation to knit a scarf too short, in order to accelerate accumulation of gold stars, it can be held in check by the prevailing skill level in the group: Most of them need help to take the finished project off the needles without causing the whole thing to unravel.

That help comes from either Hebeisen or Elizabeth Kuiper, second in command of the club, and Hebeisen’s next-door neighbor at Couzens. Hebeisen had not originally planned to start a SWAP chapter at UM when she arrived on campus last fall. But when she discovered that her next-door neighbor was also a knitting enthusiast, that nudged her towards introducing the SWAP concept.

Another nudge came from the Michigan Community Scholars Program, one of 12 living/learning programs at the University of Michigan, which all fall under the umbrella of Michigan Learning Communities. The idea behind the learning communities is to tie together students with similar interests – like German language, or health sciences. For the Couzens Hall Community Scholars Program, the common interest is social justice.

Melanie Hebeisen

Melanie Hebeisen, president of SWAP.

Associate director of  the Community Scholars Program, Wendy Woods, told The Chronicle in a telephone interview that the program tries to challenge students to think about ideas that have been successful in their hometowns that they might introduce at the university – which is essentially the path that Hebeisen took in starting a SWAP chapter at UM.

The UM SWAP chapter has enjoyed some financial support through a mini-grant from the Community Scholars Program – used for yarn and needles.

The SWAP knitters accumulate lots of 60 scarves before handing them off to a homeless shelter. Here in Ann Arbor, the main shelter is the Delonis Center on West Huron Street.

On Thursday night as the knitters recalled the trip to Delonis to drop off their scarves, they conceded that the experience was not as rewarding as they’d hoped. The staff at the shelter desk didn’t seem like they’d been apprised of the background to all the scarves. The students’ conclusion was that they needed to talk to Wendy Woods and David Schoem, director of the Community Scholars Program, about how to develop more of a relationship with Delonis.

Danielle Kostrzeba

Danielle Kostrzeba, UM senior in psychology.

Does the Delonis Center even need scarves? Absolutely, says Ellen Schulmeister, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, which operates the center. Reached by phone, Schulmeister said that the center hands out hats, gloves and scarves to people on a routine basis. Without the scarves from donors like SWAP, she said, the center would need to purchase scarves, or else the center might not have a scarf for someone who needed one.

The knitting sessions in the living room of Couzens have an educational component beyond increasing students’ knitting skill. On Thursday, SWAP knitter Michael Jacobson had found a short video clip online, illustrating the point that the prevailing stereotypical concept of a homeless person as an old man on the street doesn’t necessarily hold true. Women and children, Jacobson told his knitting colleagues, are actually more likely to end up in poverty. When the video clip concluded, Jacobson ended the silence by declaring, “Now we’re all sad. Keep knitting!”

Liz Kuiper and Michael Jacobson

Liz Kuiper (left) inspects the work of Michael Jacobson (right) and determines that it needs to be substantially unraveled for a fresh start.

The group knitting in the Couzens Hall living room also clearly serves a social purpose for the knitters. Senior UM student Danielle Kostrzeba, who’s also a resident advisor, called knitting together a stress reliever. Kostrzeba is a psychology major who’ll be graduating this spring and heading into a nursing program.

Next year, there will be no knitting in the Couzens Hall living room. Those $49 million in renovations that Tim Slottow described at the regents meeting will close the dorm for the year. The Community Scholars Program will be housed instead at East Quad.

Bethany Nagle

Bethany Nagle (back to camera) shows the SWAP knitters some possible designs for club T-shirts for next year.

knit scarf ready for delivery

Finished scarves are tagged with a card that includes a description of the SWAP program and the name of the knitter.


  1. By Maya Williams
    March 23, 2010 at 11:14 am | permalink

    I think that this is a wonderful article that spreads awareness about the issue of homelessness. As a member of the Michigan Community Scholars Program I know that SWAP is and will continue to have an amazing impact on its community and Michigan students. I must say that I am proud to be a part of this program, and I believe that SWAP will continue to avidly show the passion that these students have for others. Additionally I am glad that the students were recognized for their hard work and this article portrays their contributions to the community in an excellent way.

  2. By Angus Macgyver
    March 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm | permalink

    Just wanted to make a note that it is the Michigan Community Scholars Program (MCSP) not Community Scholars Program. Otherwise great article on SWAP!

  3. By Allen Narens
    March 23, 2010 at 5:36 pm | permalink

    I am the proud grandfather of Melanie Hebeisen. When my daughter,Jody, and Melanie first started this knitting group in their home in Northbrook. I was touched at the thought it was for homeless people. Each of the tags affixed to the scarf, upon completion, read “in Memory of Cookie ” .Cookie was my beloved wife of 52 years. I remember taking the first bunch of scarves to a homeless shelter to a Church in Evanston, Illinoi. They were so greatfull.We were told alot of homeless people did not want to come into a shelter, and the volunteers told them they would give them a scarf if they would please come to the shelter for a hot meal and a bed for the night. It worked most of the time. Yes, to say that I am a proud grampa and father would be putting it mild. Keep up the good work everyone and an extra special kiss to Melenie. I love you, Poppy