|Vietnam Veterans of America|
Malik Muhammad is serious about crocheting. Hats, gloves, scarves, you name it. He’s been making them for several years now, and he’s not about to stop. “I do it at home because it is amazing,” he said. “People ask, ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ I say, ‘When I was in prison.’”
Therein lies an unusual tale of commitment, community, and redemption—three principles, you could say, that drive the work of the Unified Incarcerated Veterans Organization, also known as VVA Chapter 1120, located in the Deerfield Correctional Center in Capron, Virginia. Muhammad is a former president of the chapter.
Muhammad helped establish a crocheting project while he was serving time in Deerfield. Prisoners, including chapter members, crochet items for needy people in the area. “Even though we’re veterans and we’re not active in the military, we still felt we wanted to serve our community,” Muhammad said. “We wanted to try to rewrite the narrative of how we are viewed as incarcerated people. We are human beings, and we do care.”
Although Muhammad was released in April 2020, the crocheting continues at Deerfield as prisoners carry on making things still very much needed. Indeed, residents of the surrounding area have gratefully welcomed the fruits of Chapter 1120’s labors. As a local newspaper, the Tidewater News, reported not long ago, Chapter 1120 has “brightened the lives of people within the community” more than once.
For example, during a banquet on Veterans Day 2018, Chapter 1120 presented 19 boxes full of some 900 crocheted hats, scarves, and gloves to representatives of Southampton Social Services, overwhelming the recipients with emotion.
The crocheting project wasn’t Muhammad’s idea, but without him it may never have gotten off the ground. In late 2017 fellow Chapter 1120 member Victor Jones had submitted a proposal to the prison warden, but never received a response. Jones had learned that Southampton Social Services wanted to launch an initiative to provide clothing to needy people and thought crocheting could help. “We found that the proposal was just lying dormant,” Muhammad said. “Nobody had done anything with it.”
Muhammad helped revive the proposal, which the warden approved in March 2018. Jones and another inmate set up classes to teach others how to crochet. Muhammad was among the first students. “It was very simple to learn,” he said. “To watch it, it looks complicated, but once you sit and you learn the basic foundation stitch, it becomes very simple. The rest follows.”
Southampton Social Services and a local American Legion post donated yarn to Chapter 1120, and the crocheting went into full-swing. In addition to hats, scarves, and gloves, the members crocheted baby blankets, afghans, and leg warmers—and have been doing so ever since. Social Services and the Legion receive all the goods and donate them throughout the area, including to homes for senior citizens and shelters for abused women.
CHANGE & GROWTH
The usual narrative of incarcerated men doesn’t typically evoke images of inmates sitting quietly and crocheting things for themselves, much less for people they don’t know. But all of this is fundamentally about change and growth, Muhammad says. First, he noted that “it’s very therapeutic, especially when you think of it as learning a new skill set. It just takes your mind off of where you are and gives you a sense of normalcy.”
Then there’s the profound sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing you have helped people in some way. “It brings so much joy because when we donate it, give people the stuff, you can see the elation on their faces,” he said. That joy intensified when chapter members began crocheting things for their friends and families.
To date, Muhammed estimates that Chapter 1120 has crocheted and donated about three thousand items of clothing. Some stay in memory, such as a baby blanket that went to a family whose home had burned down. The mother said they had lost a baby blanket in the fire, a blanket her own mother had made years ago. She told Muhammad she was very happy to receive a new blanket from Chapter 1120.
More recently, the chapter’s products have been donated to the Hampton VA Medical Center, where a female veteran received a crocheted blanket. She suffered from traumatic brain injury and is a double-amputee. Muhammad was told she was deeply moved by getting such a thoughtful gift from fellow veterans, and now prizes it so much that that the staff has to nearly pry it out of her hands to wash it.
Chapter 1120’s spirit of giving hasn’t been limited to crocheting. A little over two years ago members mounted a drive to donate supplies to nearby Capron Elementary School. “We did it because 75 percent of children going to that school live in poverty,” Muhammad said. Using the 25-35 cents per hour they earn from prison jobs, members started buying pencils, pens, erasers, legal pads, composition books, markers, glue, and backpacks. Deerfield Correctional Center also contributed toward the cost. Ultimately, Chapter 1120 donated ten boxes of school supplies to the school. “The school principal burst into tears,” Muhammad said, when the supplies arrived.
Muhammad now works for a software and technology firm. He credits crocheting, which he still does, and “good family support” with helping him re-enter society with a positive outlook. “You can’t look at what transpired before. It’s all a part of who you have become. So, you can either be bitter, or you can become better. I chose to become better.”
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