Man accidentally starts knitting club at treatment facility and helps people like him recover from addiction

Nelson Mendonca in front of his knitted hats.
Phoenix Society

For over two decades, Nelson Mendonca struggled with drug addiction, a lifestyle that caused him to go and in out of prison.

No matter how hard he tried to fight it, he found himself succumbing time and time again to the whims of his inner demons.
There came a time when he had lost all hope, thinking that this was going to be his life forever.

That’s until he picked up an unlikely hobby that ended up changing his life: knitting.

While he was imprisoned in British Columbia, Canada, during the coronavirus pandemic, the 41-year-old got hold of a loom hook—a knitting tool—as part of art therapy. He then joined a program where he learned to knit and spent months making toques for the homeless.

When he got out of prison in July, Nelson went into the Phoenix Society, a treatment facility with integrated addiction services center, to join their 90-day live-in treatment program. There, he returned to loom knitting as a way to cope with the loneliness and anxiety he was feeling.

The group being interviewed by a reporter.
Phoenix Society

“The first thing that came into my head was I just wanted to go get some yarn and a loom. I started making a toque. Everybody was wondering what I was doing since it kind of looks weird at first,” he explained.

Nelson’s unique hobby caught the attention of several people at the facility. Other men started asking what he was doing and eventually tried it for themselves.

Before he knew it, there were over 10 guys on his treatment floor knitting colorful toques. Nelson’s solo hobby had turned into a little community!

“It just became a little knitting club on our floor,” he said.

As the men got better at knitting, they were able to create more elaborate designs, incorporating pompoms and even taking requests for sports-themed bonnets.

Toques made by the knitting club at Phoenix Society
Phoenix Society

So far, the knitting group has created over 200 toques to donate to people in need, including people in homeless shelters and women in recovery homes. They’ve even made tiny toques for newborns which will be given to babies at Surrey Memorial Hospital when the pandemic protocols allow it.

Aside from being able to help others and serving as a healthy distraction, the men from this treatment facility also benefit from knitting in more personal ways.

“It helps them open up to be focused on something: you’re not thinking about what you’re saying,” Nelson said. “It makes it easier for them to open up and dig deep about certain things.”

Nelson’s favorite thing about all of this is getting to finish a toque and giving it to someone. He said the act ”sparked joy” in him he had never felt before.

Men in recovery who've started a knitting club at Phoenix Society
Phoenix Society

“It’s the one thing in my life I can’t cheat, manipulate, cut corners, or find a loophole, because I’ve tried to make it faster and easier,” he told CNN. “But you just have to follow every step, one at a time over and over again.”

Knitting is also like a picture of how Nelson wants his life to become.

“I have to follow each peg one at a time. It’s kind of like a routine of how I want to live my life from here on out.”

Nelson said he used to be the guy who starts things but never finishes them. All of that changed when he found purpose in knitting.

Phoenix Society

He has passed through the 90-day addiction program and now lives in his own suite at the treatment facility.

As for the knitting club, they’re planning to expand into scarves and take a stab at socks as well.

If you would like to help these “toquers” make more hats for people in need, you may donate to this fundraiser launched by Phoenix Society.

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