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October 21, 2017
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Buy a Hat, Save a Life

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Ugandan women crocheting. Source: beforeitsnews.com.

Real men crochet; at least they do at Krochet Kids International (KKi), a non-profit organisation whose aim is to "change the world one stitch at a time." By bringing resources and education to developing countries, the organisation's vision is "to empower people to rise above poverty" by learning a skill and acquiring the tools needed to move forward. 

The first day of crochet training, in 2007.
Source: krochetkids.com.

KKi was founded by Travis Hartanov, Kohl Crecelius and Stewart Ramsey, three guys with a common passion: crocheting. When asked if they thought crocheting was an unusual choice for an organisation led by guys, they quickly answer, "That's what most people think!" Crecelius is quick to add, "We initially learned to crochet because we wanted unique hats to wear on the ski hill. We then fell in love with the design and the art of creating. Those of you who make things by hand know the feeling of completing a project."

KKi was born out of a love for crocheting and a desire to help people in need. Through travelling and volunteering their free time during college, the trio saw the poverty prevalent in countries around the world, but also learned about people's desire to change their own circumstances through work, not aid. "We learned early on that people want to use their capabilities and talents to work in order to provide for their families," Crecelius says. "They didn't simply want more handouts."

Ramsey initially went to Gulu, Uganda in 2006 to help at an orphanage a friend of his was starting inside a camp for people displaced by the on-going Ugandan insurgency. While there, Ramsey learned about the Ugandan people's desire to break free of a dependency on aid. He had the opportunity to talk to entire families at the orphanage, discovering a common plight: people in the camp wanted to work to help themselves. While men could go out and try to find manual work, women had a more difficult time finding a way to support their families, especially single mothers.

After the Ugandan trip, Ramsey returned home to his friends with a sense of purpose and a firm resolve to do something to help the women (and their families). In agreement, the three jumped in headfirst and decided to put their passion for crocheting to work. "We didn't know how to make any other products, so we started with crocheting hats," Crecelius says. "I think it's an important lesson, start with what you know. Start taking steps forward. And most importantly START." 

I think it's an important lesson, start with what you know. Start taking steps forward. And most importantly START.

The trio had been taught to crochet by Crecelius' older brother when they were teenagers and had started a small hat company, selling hats to skiing and snowboarding friends in their home state of Washington. Because a crocheting outfit led by guys is bound to make the news, they were eventually featured in a local newspaper, where they were dubbed, "the crochet kids." So, when it was time to create their non-profit, it made sense to keep the nickname alive. 

"We took all our designing and brand knowledge from this, which wasn't much at the time, and applied it to starting a new kind of hat company," Crecelius explains. "We would design headwear, it would be produced in Uganda, and sold in the States to create a cycle of job creation and empowerment." 

The three guys, plus seven friends and volunteers, went back to Uganda to train ten women to crochet hats. The training was intense, one-on-one and took months. As the organisation grew, KKi set up a mentorship program, so the women crocheting for them could access to the tools, resources and knowledge to create a unique plan for rising above poverty. They also chose a motto for organisation: "Buy a hat. Change a life," which now appears on a paper label that comes with every hat. Each label is hand-signed by the woman who knitted that particular hat - a proud achievement for many of the women, as some of them couldn't write before they joined KKi.

The changes in the lives of the women working with KKi have been massive. Although education is free in Uganda, many families cannot afford to send their children to school because they lack the money to pay for books, uniforms or transportation. However, since being employed by KKi, many women are now able to send their children to school for the first time. Likewise, some women have been able to rebuild their lives after being held captive by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a militant group, for years. Some of the women are HIV-positive and had not been able to secure work anywhere before KKi.

The hand-signed garment label.
Source: volcommunity.com.

Although KKi began by selling only knitted hats, the company now has an extensive collection that includes t-shirts, scarves, sunglass cases, headbands and other accessories. In 2011, KKi expanded to Peru, "That was our next step because of friends and partnerships that we had in the area," Crecelius says. "Not to mention, we also had access to some of the world's best yarns and fibers!"

Now employing 160 women in Uganda and Peru, KKi products can be bought through the company's website and at more than 150 retailers around America, including Nordstrom

Crecelius adds that he sees the brand continuing to grow. "We are excited about the prospect of starting a program here in the USA as well," he says. "We are actually up for a grant right now that would help us in $1 million and give us the opportunity to start a KKi program here at home and offer empowerment to more communities."

From there, the trip plan to keep looking for new countries and communities where they can implement their program. "Our goal is to provide a holistic program that focuses on empowerment for the individuals we work with," says Crecelius. "In other words, it's all about depth, not about breadth."

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