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Crocheting with compassion

Lake Life

Kevin Coppedge, the Veterans Group of Auburn’s sergeant-at-arms, speaks with Annie Kerniski, who donates yarn to the group.

In a town known for its prison, its support for the military and its penchant for knitting, a few dozen incarcerated veterans have spent the last two decades quietly distributing food, money and thousands of pieces of crocheted clothing to needy children and families.

The Veterans Group of Auburn began its charity work in 1985 when Ernie Bullock, a two-tour Vietnam veteran, helped organize a food drive inside Auburn Correctional Facility.

He and fellow veterans went from cell to cell, asking for extra canned and dried goods from inmates’ care packages. They collected 500 cans; the next year it was more than 1,000.

Bullock spent 33 years in the Auburn prison before his release in 2006. He now serves as pastor of Freedom’s Community Ministry on Wall Street, catering particularly to veterans.

“You can talk about caring all you want, but you’ve got to be a doer. You’ve got to put it into action,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in prison that care about other people. ... It encourages them to know they can still be productive and appreciated regardless of the type of mistake they made.”

The veterans first started crocheting in the mid-1990s at the instigation of Bill Layer, an inmate and a veteran.

Their output and the scope of recipients has grown every year. In 2011, the men crocheted 990 pieces.

This year’s donations included 48 caps for women with breast cancer who underwent chemotherapy; 45 infant sets for premature babies at a California hospital; lap blankets for veterans in Syracuse, Canandaigua and Buffalo; and caps and scarves for Lakota Indian children at school in South Dakota.

All that in addition to the primary recipients around Auburn, where nearly every elementary school receives a bundle of knitted clothing for children who need it and food pantries get clothing and cash for their efforts.

Shirley Martinez and Dan Waters, grandparents of 29, distribute the goods, donate yarn and volunteer at the prison three times a week.

Waters served 24 years in the Marines and earned three Purple Hearts. At a weekly crochet squad meeting, he wheeled around the prison classroom in a swivel chair, kibbutzing and watching the men work while his wife helped with stitches.

“Some of these guys are lifers and they’ll never get out. Some can’t read or write,” she said. “But they served our country and a lot of them don’t get recognition for that.”

‘Giving a little hope back’

At the most recent crochet meeting, a chalkboard at the front of the room announced the new target: 500 knit hats with earflaps for children ages 6 to 10.

Michael Johnson, chairman of the crochet squad, gathered some of the novices for impromptu lessons.

“Whoever doesn’t know how to read a pattern, you’re going to learn to read a pattern,” he boomed. “I’m going to lay this (hat) down, and if yours doesn’t match it, I’m not going to take it. ... We’ve got to standardize.”

Veterans Group of Auburn President Dennis Conway, a Marine from 1975 until 1980, barked out orders like a martinet.

There was some grumbling, but the men knew the rules — if they didn’t like it, they could leave. There are about 60 inmates on the group’s waiting list, hoping to take their place.

Unlike most of the men in the prison, Conway has family in Auburn — a wife, two daughters and three grandchildren.

He said the city has a reputation for caring about its veterans.

“This area has a lot of nationalism, and that promotes the veterans,” he said. “I don’t believe when you leave the military your duty to your country changes. ... Yeah, we acted up and ended up in a place like this, but we still need to do what we can to help people.”

Conway was one of several inmates to point out that the military trains people to be violent, then returns them to society with little transitional help.

If it weren’t for his time with the Marines, he said he probably wouldn’t be in prison. Still, he said he doesn’t regret the time he served.

“They build killing machines, then they don’t deprogram them. Some people handle that and some people don’t,” he said. “It doesn’t even make me hate my country for what they do to us. It just saddens me.”

Cyril Winebrenner, 31, grew up poor. His mother taught him to crochet so he could make and mend his own clothing as the family bounced around the Midwest.

He joined the Army in 2002 and made it through boot camp, but received a medical discharge after an exposure to tear gas made his asthma flare.

Winebrenner never deployed, but some of the people he came to know in boot camp have died in Iraq.

“That eats at me,” he said. “You always think, ‘If I had been there, it would have been different.’”

He now uses his childhood crochet skills to help others. His stepson is a Marine in Afghanistan.

“The biggest problem with this environment is, there’s no hope,” he said. “This is us giving a little hope back.”

Not all the veterans were crocheting — some, post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers in a stress reduction program, huddled around a TV in a back corner, watching a John Travolta movie on an old VCR.

Not all the crocheters were veterans — among the “associate members” was Donald Davis, a Harlem native who was working on a pink, white and red hat for his friend’s daughter.

Davis has only been crocheting for several months; his lines went haywire as he looked up from his work.

“Everything starts with the chain,” he said. He looped the yarn, folded it over onto itself and pulled it tight.

“Boom. Like a pretzel. ... I don’t know many of these stitches, but some of these guys is amazing.”

‘We’re all brothers’

The volunteer work is made possible by some strong veteran connections at the prison. The inmates’ staff advisor, Dick Heffron, spent four years in the Army, and Superintendent Harold Graham was a Marine from 1972 until 1974.

Graham recalled that his mother used to crochet booties for veterans at a downstate hospital.

“The vets here do a lot. They’re a rock-solid group within the facility,” he said. “Just because you committed a crime doesn’t mean you can’t help people when you’re in here.”

Judy Gelston used to teach at Casey Park Elementary School and now serves as director of the Skaneateles Ecumenical Food Pantry, which got $150 from the veterans this year.

The pantry has seen 21 percent more people this year; in November alone, it served 4,952 meals, she said.

“People in Skaneateles get cold and hungry too,” she said. “We’ve got little ones, adults, teenagers — not that teenagers ever wear hats or gloves, but eventually it might get that cold. ... It’s very kind of them.”

The Booker T. Washington Center and the food pantry at St. Alphonsus Church also received $150 each from the veterans’ fundraising.

The inmates accumulate money from their work wages, gifts from friends and family and by selling coffee and tea in the prison.

Much of their yarn comes from Doris Buffett, the sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Through her Sunshine Lady Foundation, she donates $2,500 worth of yarn to the inmates every year.

Some also comes from the Rochester and Auburn chapters of the Vietnam Veterans of America, both of which also distribute the crocheted goods.

“We don’t make distinctions with where someone lives if they did their duty in the armed services,” said Bob Smith, president of VVA 704 in Auburn. “We’re all brothers. We take care of our own, plain and simple.”

Staff writer Justin Murphy can be reached at 282-2237 or justin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at CitizenMurphy.

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