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Busy Fingers comfort patients with their craft

Judy Dallas is used to getting compliments for her work with Busy Fingers, but that doesn't mean it's expected.

Sometimes, the kind words can be as surprising as a patch of brown fabric with hot pink spots.

"He had a deep voice that went all the way down to his toenails," said Dallas, recalling a six-foot-plus man who approached her in the hospital. She dropped her voice to a lower register: "And he said, `Thank you for the baby hat'."

Times like that give Dallas a sense of accomplishment as she and around 25 other ladies gather at 2 p.m. at Down Manor on the first Wednesday of each month to knit and crochet afghans, lap robes, capes, baby caps and booties, shrugs, layette and blankets for visitors to Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital.

According to hospital figures, Busy Fingers members spent a total of 7,211 hours last year working with yarn donated by the public.

"That's a low estimate -- it's probably closer to ten thousand hours," said Lynn Berens, director of volunteer services at the hospital.

Staggering as the figure is, it pales in comparison to the hours of experience that Busy Fingers members have accumulated in their lifetimes.

"I was trying to remember how many years of experience we have put together, and decided not to tell anybody," said Dallas to Olga Gonzalez, a hospital housekeeper who visited Busy Fingers for the first time Wednesday. Gonzalez handed Dallas a baby cap she had knitted and asked for an appraisal.

"That's pretty good for the first whack out of the barrel!" said Dallas. Her own first "whack out of the barrel" came when she began to crochet at the age of eight; she started knitting 12 years ago. Taking over the helm of Busy Fingers in 1991 wasn't too much of a stretch, although the hospital volunteer services program didn't earn its official name until last year. Irene Best founded the program in 1990, which joined other volunteer service projects like the pet therapy program.

"Irene Best was pretty sneaky!" Dallas said to the gathered ladies. "She was going to leave, and I said I could stay and help her. Famous last words!"

Since then Dallas has proven that she has the skills to serve as program coordinator, though she prefers the title "Cheerleader."

"We call her the program Cheerleader because she is so full of energy, and really rallies people together," said Berens. "We're just so thrilled that Busy Fingers is growing. Everyone who volunteers does what they can do to make it a fabulous program."

Dallas was certainly energetic Wednesday, sitting at the head of a table piled high with yarn and spinning out a stream of instructions and comments to the ladies gathered there. At the moment, she was discussing toe warmers for people wearing foot casts.

"We have more broken legs in this area because of the skiing, snowboarding and windsurfing," Dallas said knowingly.

The ladies also knit caps and booties for newborns, but not every creation of theirs is destined for such happy circumstances. Dallas also laid out specifics for premature demise kits designed for stillborn infants.

"These little kits have been received by lots of grateful mommies and if they bring even five minutes of comfort than every stitch is worth it," said Dallas. "We're not in this for gratitude -- we're in it to bring comfort to other women. We're all sisters under the skin."

Most of the Busy Fingers garments are bestowed under better conditions. Since the opening of the Ray T. Yasui Dialysis Center in 1998 the ladies have produced 65 afghans measuring 40-by-60 inches each. They also make "Linus blankets" for children to keep with them if they have an overnight stay at the hospital.

"They all give up their time free-heartedly," said Dallas. "We like giving something back to the community. After taking out for so many years, it makes you feel good. And when you hold the little baby hats in your hand, it makes you feel fantastic."

Busy Fingers garnered recognition last October at the Oregon Association of Hospital Auxiliaries conference in Eugene. The group was awarded a gold certificate for having the best display of handcrafts on hand. It was also gratifying for Dallas to see that the ladies' patterns, which had been given out at a regional meeting of volunteers, were beginning to show up all over the convention.

Dallas and Berens both observed that the ladies practice a fading art. But Dallas is trying to revive it, and hopes to pass along her skills at the high school.

"The heart isn't dying if you're willing to share. If you get just one person to start, it snowballs," said Dallas.

"When I teach people, my price is usually a hat or two, depending on how long it takes," she laughed.

To donate yarn or join the Busy Fingers group, contact Berens at the hospital's Volunteer Services department at 387-6242.

Busy Fingers volunteers over the last year included: Judy Dallas, Irene Best, Margaret Boytz, Virginia Eversole, Maude Gulliksen, Ruth Johnson, Sylvia Klahre, Mae Kniskern, Madeline Martin, Virginia Paul, Delma Roush, Francis Stolhand, Jean Tamiyasu, Julia Zweerts, Roberta Clayton, Frances Dakan and Margaret Smith, and the late Lena Young and Kay Higgins.

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