Handmade: The effects of COVID-19 on one local charity

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Mittens for Detroit, which operates out of the First National Building in downtown Detroit, had just done its last distribution of winter accessories when life as we know it took a major turn. The world was suddenly filled with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Fortunately, we had just done our last distribution for the season on March 13, and that's when the businesses were starting to tell people to go home," said Wendy Shepherd, executive director of Mittens for Detroit, a local charity that distributes winter accessories to those in need. "Generally, after our last distribution, I switch gears. I work on data and look for grants to build over the summer, plus I work on (planning) fundraisers."

A group of nurses from Henry Ford Health System take part in a recent Mittens for Detroit BigSort of donated winter accessories.

But as the coronavirus continues to spread, Mittens for Detroit will, undoubtedly, face an uphill battle the remainder of the year for monetary donations, in addition to items from various organizations and individuals, which it solicits every year beginning in October and running through January.

"We collect new (store bought) mittens and gloves to give to kids, teens and adults in need in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park, and, we're also working with refugee kids in Dearborn Schools," said Shepherd. They also collect thousands of handmade items from the "maker community," among them -- knitted, crocheted and sewn mittens, hats and scarves.

Mittens for Detroit currently has two fundraising events set for June 13 (World Wide Knit in Public Day, WWKIPDay) and 14 at Leon & Lulu in Clawson and the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak, respectively. 

"We get a percentage of the actual sales for the duration of the four-hour event at Leon & Lulu. It's not a huge fundraiser, but it's a way to show our appreciation to the public, and it's a chance for 'the girls' to get out,' explained Shepherd. Fee for the event, held inside the store, is a minimum of $10. This will be the sixth consecutive year that Mittens for Detroit has hosted its WWKIPDay event at Leon & Lulu.

The event at the zoo is the result of a "brainstorming" session between Shepherd and Sam Gill, co-owner of the Yarn Stop in Clawson. The two were trying to come up with an idea for a possible fundraiser that would mark the 10-year anniversary of Mittens for Detroit. "Knit, Crochet & Spin at the Detroit Zoo" is the name given to the event.

"We have people paying $25 (each), which covers admission, plus we’ll have goodies. But, if people sign up for the combo at $35, that gets them in both events." The zoo event will be held beneath a tent, and the sponsors are the Yarn Stop, Black Sheep Knitting Guild, Oakland County Knitting Guild, ChiaoGoo, Knitterly Things and CleverGirl Designs.

Shepherd said, "Plans for both events will be revisited in about three weeks. What we and a lot of other non-profits are wondering is -- are people going to want to be in large groups once we're out of our houses? And there are questions as to what kind of event do you have if people are feeling they want to be distant. It's just like the virus -- who knows what's going to happen?

In the meantime, donated items are still coming in. "I just got a box of homemade mittens the other day from New York," continued Shepherd. "We also have monthly donors, but this is the time I should be fundraising which feeds our budget for the whole year. We're a winter/seasonal charity. We've chosen not to do a lot of active fundraising until the next couple weeks, but by (Dan Gilbert's) Bedrock giving us free rent for the next three months, that has given us a buffer. We're also applying for the loans available for non-profits through the CARES Act. We're doing what we can to keep the doors open."

With so much time on their hands, I asked Shepherd if she thinks knitters and crocheters are making more winter accessories than usual to donate to the charity? She said, "I think some of the makers, who also sew, have switched to sewing for the healthcare workers. But, some of my friends have told me, we also have a lot of friends who are trying to deal with the tension (of the crisis) by knitting and crocheting." 

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

Contact Mittens for Detroit at