Charlene Breakfield of Detroit refuses to let four strokes, diabetes, lung disease, a heart attack in February, and recent surgery on her right shoulder for a torn rotator cuff stop her from helping the homeless. (Talk about determination!) And, she’s not at all depressed about her physical condition. She views it as a “learning experience.”

“I was always taught to be positive,” she said. “No matter what the circumstance, never let that word (depressed) pass your lips. My thinking is — if you believe it — you’ll see it.” But that’s not to say she hasn’t been angry about her failing health.

“I was just mad at the situation I found myself in, because I’ve been active all my life, and then I had to ask people for help to even go to the bathroom,” said Breakfield, 70, who suffered her first stroke 17 years ago. When she got home from the hospital, her son had removed all the doors from the hinges so she could use her wheelchair, but it would be about two years before she felt like doing something creative.

One day, while in the hospital after her second stroke, she watched motivational speaker Les Brown on TV. “He said, ‘Live full, but die empty.’ I thought – OK, this has happened to me, but I’ve got to get up and start doing something, and that’s when I started crocheting hats. My son would get the yarn for me, and a lot of the yarn I’ve gotten has been donated to me from doctors, nurses and friends.

“I met a man at Oakwood Hospital while I was trying to crochet, but my hand was paralyzed. He asked me what was I trying to do. I said, I’m trying to crochet, but I don’t have but a little yarn. He said, ‘If you give me your phone number I might be able to find you some yarn.’ Two weeks later, he called and said, ‘I have something for you.’ He came over with his SUV completely packed with yarn. That was about 15 years ago, and he and his wife have been bringing me yarn ever since.” She said he was a deacon at a local church, and he’d written a letter in the church newsletter, asking for yarn donations.

Between physical therapy sessions twice a week at Team Rehab Physical Therapy in Livonia, and doctors appointments, Breakfield is busy crocheting hats for persons in need and/or living in Detroit shelters. She donates them, regularly, to Detroit Rescue Mission Ministry, Operation Get Down, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and COTS Temporary Shelter, and sometimes to Lutheran Social Services, Greater Grace Temple, Cass Community Social Services, Michigan Technical Academy, the Children’s Center, and Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church.

Her yearly goal is 300 hats. She said, “One year, I donated 365, but I messed my hand up in the process, the doctor said. The shelters send someone to pick them up. I divide them equally so that everybody gets the same number of hats. They usually come when the weather changes, like in October or November. Sometimes they call me, but most of the time I call to let them know the hats are ready to be picked up. It’s a privilege to be able to help someone. So many people have been helpful to me.”

Breakfield, who remains somewhat dependent on a wheelchair, and only has limited use of her left side, crochets about one and a half hats a day for adults and children, always using the same “simple” pattern she designed. “That way I can work fast, without trying to follow a pattern,” she said. This year, she’s behind with “barely” 100 hats made because of recent shoulder injuries, however, she remains on her mission, while concerned she may run out of yarn.

Brighton resident Diane Kapelanski, one of Breakfield’s physical therapists at Team Rehab, said, “I was impressed that someone with so many medical and personal challenges could even be thinking about the homeless, much less doing something tangible for them.”

Breakfield’s steadfast effort to help others, which began with hat donations to COTS, is the outcome of a situation she witnessed prior to her first stroke. “When I was working, I drove down the John C. Lodge service drive and saw a lady sitting on a bench (with her children) at a bus stop. She had one baby under her coat. I had to stop and go back and say, ‘Lady, what are you doing out here?’ She said, she was trying to go to the shelter. I told her to get in the car. We went to McDonald’s and got some hot chocolate, hamburgers and whatever they wanted. She then showed me how to get to COTS, where I saw this line of people standing outside.”

She said, someone recently asked her, “How long are you going to make those hats?” Her reply — “As long as there are homeless people!” What an inspiring woman!

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or

Contact Charlene Breakfield at (313) 243-4417.

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